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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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The Pursuit of Immortal Glory

The universe is a great Web of Life. You might argue that because so much of it is uninhabitable (dead rocks and nuclear furnaces) we should keep our discussion on the topic of life focused solely on our home planet. But we must remember that Earth is itself a product of the Universal Process which began some 14 billion years ago, and even if our planet was the only place where life exists across the entire 96 billion-light-year diameter of the observable cosmos, we are logically bound to the conclusion that the universe is alive. And conscious. And holding this thought, right now.

The Web of Life, then, extends out into the cosmic surround, includes the whole earth, the vibrant system of living things called nature, and your body as an organismic member of this system. Your body can’t survive apart from the support of nature, nature can’t continue without the favorable conditions of Earth, the earth wouldn’t exist had not the universal process conspired in the way it did for our planet to get formed and flung around its home star.

You may feel separate and all alone at times, but that’s something else, not your body.

I have placed you in the above diagram, nestled in the Web of Life as an embodied and natural earthling, a child of the cosmos and latter-day descendant of stars. For now we’ll focus on the purple figure outlined in black, ignoring everything behind you and to the right. Black is my color code for your animal nature, which is extroverted in its orientation to the environment (nature, Earth, cosmos) as you reach out for the shelter, resources, and connections you need to live.

Purple represents your inner awareness, oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery of consciousness. Also called the Ground of Being, it is how our provident universe is experienced from within, so to speak, in the uplift of existence. This grounding mystery of being can only be found within as you detach attention from the sensory-physical realm and allow awareness to drop past “mine” (property and attributes), “me” (the felt object of self), and “I” (the center of personal identity), into the deep and timeless present.

Consciousness has no object at this point. Ground is merely a metaphor reflecting the experience of mystery as both source and support of existence in this moment.

This duality of outer and inner orientations of consciousness, one through the body and out to the Web of Life, and the other through the soul and deeper into the Ground of Being, is what constitutes your essential self as a human being. You are a human animal (body) with a capacity for contemplating the inner mystery of being (soul). Because your highly evolved brain and nervous system make this dual orientation possible, you and your species may be the only ones with an ability to contemplate your place in the provident universe.


I should be clear that it’s not entirely by virtue of your advanced nervous system that you are able to break past the boundaries of personal identity for a larger (Web) or deeper (Ground) experience of reality. You need a center of personal identity (color coded orange in my diagram) in place to make such transpersonal experiences even possible. We call them transpersonal precisely because they are about going beyond the personal center of identity and its limited frame of reference. The center is who you think you are, and the frame is a construction of meaning where your identity belongs. It is your world.

Things get interesting at this point, and not just a little complicated, since ego formation is not an instinct-driven process, but instead depends on your tribe. The construction of identity and its frame of reference (world) is accomplished over the first three decades of your life. During that time your tribe is selecting or suppressing temperamental predispositions according to its standards of a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’. As time goes on, the incentives for compliance evolve from candy or spankings, to grades, degrees, bonuses, and promotions. The goal is to shape you into “one of us,” someone who belongs, follows directions, and will do anything for the sake of honor.

Even though your personal identity is a social construction, your tribe still had to work with (and on) an animal nature that really doesn’t care very much about rules and expectations. A strong instinct for self-preservation needed to be reconditioned so that you could learn how to share and make sacrifices. Impulses connected to elimination, aggression, and sexual behavior had to be brought under control and put on a proper schedule. The means for accomplishing all of this is called social conditioning, and the primary psycho-mechanism for its success is the ego.

Somehow your constructed identity needed to be sufficiently separated from the animal urgencies of your body, but without losing the tether to your embodied essential self.

This is where, in the deeper cultural history of our species, religion progressed out of animism and into theism. The higher power of a patron deity not only served to give supernatural sanction to tribal morality, but it functioned also as a literary role-model. I say ‘literary’ because patron deities live only in the storytelling imagination (aka mythology). Every deity is a kind of personality construct, a literary invention and projected ideal reflecting back to the tribe those character traits and virtues which the community aspires to emulate. In exchange for their worship, sacrifice, and obedience, the patron deity bestows favors and rewards (e.g., success in childbirth, bountiful harvests, increases in wealth, and beatitude in the next life).

If we look closely at the patron deities of name-brand religions today, we can identify three qualities common to them all. Underneath and behind the tribe-specific virtues, its devotees honor their deity as immortal, supreme, and absolute. In the pictorial language of myth these translate into a depiction of the deity as separate, above, and outside the ordinary world of everyday concerns.

An even closer look will reveal these qualities as the driving aspirations of ego as well.

In the need to establish a separate center of personal identity, ego must first be differentiated from the body. Because the body is mortal, ego must be – or aspire to become – immortal. Notice that the ego’s status with respect to the body is ‘not’ (im-) mortal, a simple negation without any meaningful content. In addition to being separate from the body, ego takes its position above the body (the literal root meaning of the word ‘supreme’) and manages things from up there. Finally, as a final move of separation, ego begins to regard itself as essentially independent and outside the realm of bodily concerns – just like the deity.

According to my theory of post-theism, the intended outcome of theism is the internalization of the patron deity’s ‘godly virtues’, to the point where its projected ideal is no longer needed. The individual assumes creative authority in his or her life, taking responsibility for modeling the virtues of maturity, ego strength, and community interest. This is especially important to up-and-coming theists (the younger generation), who need taller powers to show them how to be and what to do.

Throughout this very fascinating game we can’t forget your essential self. The construct of identity can now serve in the transpersonal experiences of empathy, communion, and wholeness. If we can survive ego’s pursuit of immortal glory, these are the promise of our human future.

 

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The Examined Life

It was Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He is a key figure in the history of Western consciousness and its growing fascination with the self. At that time, Socrates and others were searching out the individual’s place in the comic and moral orders; only later did the obsession collapse into the neurotic variety that sits at the center of our present consumer culture. Our neuroses notwithstanding, the Socratic axiom is still good advice.

In fact it may be what keeps our strange species from wiping itself out.

In that spirit, I will step through a theoretical model of what makes us human, hopeful that a more accurate and honest self-understanding might not only prolong our stay on this planet but contribute significantly to a future of peace and well-being.

The best place to begin is with what I call our essential nature as human beings. ‘Essence’ here doesn’t refer to some absolute and unchanging reality underneath or behind what is evident to our senses. From the Greek for ‘being’ (esse), it simply speaks to what something is, not as isolated and standing apart from everything else, but just as it is, centered in itself.Model_Step 1With that in mind, I propose that our essential nature as human beings is best captured in the term ‘spiritual animal’. Other similar-sounding titles have been used in the past, such as ‘rational animal’ or ‘political animal’ (both from Aristotle), and ‘symbolic animal’ (Cassirer). But each of these is based in some capacity of higher intelligence that may be ‘higher’ in humans though not entirely unique to us. Besides, whether we are rational, political, or symbol-using animals, the qualifier in each case says more about what sorts of special things human beings do (or can do), not what we are.

As a spiritual animal our consciousness is dually oriented: inwardly to the inner recesses of contemplative life and outwardly to the sensory-physical environment. Spiritual names the inward-oriented, introverted power of consciousness which has prompted the intuition of our essential oneness with reality (within us). This intuition is profound and ineffable, and it lies at the mystical origin of all (dare I say it?) true religions. Animal not only identifies our membership in a ‘kingdom’ of life, but as an adjective it names the outward-oriented, extroverted power of consciousness which supports the perception of our essential relationship to all things (around us).

If I use the classical terms ‘soul’ and ‘body’ in connection with this dual orientation of human consciousness, I need to be especially careful not to separate them into opposing ‘parts’ of our nature, where the next step traditionally was to identify with one (soul) against the other (body). So let me stress the point that our essential nature as spiritual animals is a duality in the orientation of consciousness, not a dualism of a mortal body and an immortal soul only temporarily bound together for this earthly life. Our essential nature, in other words, possesses an indivisible integrity: we are body-and-soul, not bodies with souls or souls with bodies.Model_Step 2To this essential nature something else is added, and this I call the conditioned self, or ego. Ego is distinct from the spiritual soul and the animal body – remembering that these are orientations of consciousness and not separate parts – by its character as personal. From the Greek, our adjective ‘personal’ refers to a mode of consciousness that is socially constructed, shaped in the role-play of human relationships, and providing the individual with a mask of identity (actually numerous masks) through which we speak (persona) and interact with others.

A personality is really a rather loose association of distinct drives, attitudes, and dispositions, with each motivational strand capable of breaking the surface and running the show for a time. The psychologist Roberto Assagioli called these distinct strands ‘subpersonalities’ and regarded the ego as an executive manager of sort, with the (socialized) responsibility of keeping each in its place and a general order overall. Through the process of ego formation, this executive center of personal identity gradually assumes control and conducts the personality according to the moral constraints and expectations of society. When the personality has achieved stability, balance, and unity under ego’s effective management, the developed virtue is known as ego strength.

This adventure in ego formation is illustrated at the cultural level in the ascendancy of theism. As the patron deity represents those virtues of character expected of a devotee, god also stands behind and legitimates the disciplinary system that enforces morality. An individual’s subpersonalities, then, have their social equivalent in the many tribal members, each of whom might at any moment attempt to break out and take over. For its part, the patron deity plays the role of ego for the group, asserting the dominant will and keeping order. In a way, Freud’s concept of the superego, not just as the voice of tribal morality over (super) the individual but as a divine ego projected above (super) the group, fits into this picture well.

From the perspective granted by our separate ego, body and soul can easily (and mistakenly) be seen as “mine.” We can’t forget, however, that this separate center of personal identity does not actually exist; it is merely a social construct, a representation of ‘who I am’ in this or that tribal context. The longer purpose of ego formation is not simply to establish a personal identity, but rather to empower sufficient ego strength in the individual so that he or she is capable of ‘going beyond’ the self in such higher experiences as love, inspiration, communion, and wholeness.Model_Step 3Ego transcendence ultimately makes it possible for individual consciousness to find reconciliation with our essential nature. As long as our effort and attention are preoccupied with amounting to something, defending ourselves, and holding our own, this invitation to the unified life cannot be fully accepted. In fact, without sufficient ego strength – a deficit which can come about as a consequence of childhood abuse and the lack of positive social support – the prospect of self transcendence can strike deep anxiety in the already insecure ego. (This is the anxiety exploited by sick religion and channeled into bigotry, conviction, and violence in god’s name.)

With sufficient ego strength, however, we are able to go beyond ourselves in a healthy and holistic way, dropping deeper into the grounding mystery within and opening to the provident universe all around. This realization of oneness – that I am both a manifestation of and a participant in the present mystery of reality – promises to transform our way of life in profound ways. We can note, for instance, how Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus of Nazareth, and countless other revolutionaries in consciousness challenged the moral conventions of their time and opened the minds of their contemporaries to the sacred mystery at the heart of reality.

The examined life is indeed worth living.

 

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Human Progress and the Four Forces

Four ForcesI write this on New Year’s Day, a traditional time when people around the world make resolutions to be more responsible, love each other more deeply, and finally do something about the dreams they’ve been procrastinating on. In 30-days time, which is about how long it takes for real change to get established or abandoned, we’ll check in again.

It doesn’t always or even typically go the way we had hoped it would.

I reflected on hope in a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-AF) where I defended its importance against a trend in popular psychology which regards it essentially as yet another way human beings divert attention away from the present moment into things that aren’t real. As the expectancy of something to come, hope pulls us out of the here-and-now and thereby undermines our one genuine touchpoint in reality.

Of course, the hopeful person is still very much in the present moment, for there is nowhere else one can be, but the investment of awareness is being channeled away from what is to a future prospect of only what might be.

What this argument fails to take into consideration is the fact that our brains, particularly the most recent and uniquely human part called the prefrontal cortex, have evolved (quite literally) with the future in mind. Generally speaking, animals with more evolved brains and nervous systems are able to anticipate, predict, and plan their actions in view of future (i.e., hoped for) outcomes. Not only does this give them an advantage over animals lacking the talent, but such a future orientation allows for creative options denied to lesser brains.

Naturally the challenge is to live in touch with the present as we plan for the future. Each of us is familiar with the way that obsessing over tomorrow can cause us to overlook the priceless gift (present) of today.

As I see it, hope is one of those undeniable forces that shape human progress. As we prepare ourselves for another year, our anticipation of what it might bring and our plans for what we hope to accomplish exercise a powerful influence on what actually comes about.

But another force works in opposition to hope. I’m referring to the deep grooves of habit that hold us in well-established patterns of behavior and belief. Just like hope, habit is sometimes denigrated as a negative influence that prevents us from fully engaging in present experience. We do something long enough, or it was set in place early enough, that now we don’t even have to give it a second thought. Whether we learned it through repeated practice and discipline like a skill, or picked it up more or less spontaneously in reaction to trauma or chronic stress, habituated behavior and its associated beliefs constitute a good deal of what is meant by character.

Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” He was referring not to some magical power in belief itself, but to the power of habit in shaping our judgments regarding our own creative authority. If we routinely (i.e., habitually) dismiss or deny our capacity to change current reality and bring about something new, that deep and familiar groove will eventually deliver us to our grave.

The real danger in habit has to do with the way it locks us inside behavioral patterns and mental boxes that stifle our creativity. We become hostages of our own convictions, spellbound by the mystique of certainty, and dead to the creative intelligence that got us thinking in the first place.

Each of us has an ego, a separate center of personal identity that strives both to fit in and stand out at the same time. From birth our tribe began prodding and luring our behavior in the direction of communal aims, all the while giving support to the emergence of personal ambitions regarding our future goals. Some of those goals never crystallized out of the fantasy state, where they functioned more as a therapy of mental escape from the fixed conditions of everyday life than as motivators of actual progress. As we know, a habit of insecurity, entitlement, self-doubt, and procrastination can keep us perpetually stuck in the daydream of what we wish our lives could be.

In that daydream we tend to live out of touch with our body (since it is where our trauma and shame are stored) and equally alienated from our soul (which is where intuition and unity-awareness are found). If we could only pay attention, symptomatic messages in the body would reveal where our creative energy and higher human progress is currently blocked – in hang-ups around security and power (gut), attachment and love (heart), or meaning and truth (head).

The body itself is informed by a deep instinctual intelligence with roots reaching back into our evolutionary prehistory. Those urges, drives, and reflexes were formed over millenniums of symbiotic adaptation to the limits and opportunities of the environment. Even though the innovations of culture have liberated us somewhat from the force of instinct, we are foolish not to include our animal nature and its visceral intelligence in our New Year’s resolutions. No diet, whether endorsed by medical doctors or Hollywood movie stars, will produce a healthy body if we have lost attunement with the body’s own primal knowing of what is truly wholesome and beneficial to health.

Opposite the dark urgencies of instinct are the bright revelations of wisdom, guarded (or ignored) under the stewardship of our diverse cultures. The soul’s insight into the truth of things is like a transcendent light shining through the stained glass icons of meaning that our cultures honor and protect. Oftentimes this light illumines the genuine beauty and grace of those icons. But sometimes, particularly when they have become dogmatic, inflexible, and absolute in their claims on truth, it may inspire the birth of new images and metaphors in pursuit of a higher meaning.

Wisdom should not be confused with knowledge or “being smart.” Throughout its history, the evolving stream of human wisdom has been contemplated as carrying the ethical insights and mystical realizations that can help us live more authentically, more compassionately, and more peacefully together in community. Wisdom will always challenge us to sink deeper and open wider to the present mystery of reality, always beyond the moral judgments and doctrinal orthodoxies that currently divide us.

Our progress, both individually and collectively, will be short-lived so long as we continue to believe and behave as if we’re separate from (and superior to) the rest. Wellbeing – truly being well (a cognate of the term ‘whole’) – is about living with the Big Picture in mind and promoting wholeness in all we do.

In my diagram the double arrow between instinct and wisdom is bigger yet less distinct than the single-direction arrows from habit to hope, while the latter are more pronounced. This is to make the point that as long as we stay in the grooves defining who we are and what’s in it for me, access to the deeper force of instinct and the higher force of wisdom will be largely unavailable to us. And as long as that’s the case, our human progress, both in this coming year and in the decades still to come, will be questionable indeed.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2016 in The Creative Life

 

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Paths Into Reality

Although I spend a good amount of time defending the role of religion as the “system of utilities” that translates our spiritual intuitions into the structures of meaning in everyday life, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that intuition precedes the structures which translate it, and that meaning is secondary to the mystery at the heart of experience. My utilitarian account of religion, where its validity is determined by its usefulness in representing the mystery and supporting a way of life that promotes genuine community, offers a helpful criterion for criticism as well as one that appreciates religion’s valuable contribution.

Religion’s behavior of late has provided more grist for criticism than appreciation, however, leading many to wonder if perhaps its long career is approaching an end. As science and secularism continue to spread across the planet and pervade modern consciousness, perhaps it is time to just let religion go. The problem with letting religion go is that it isn’t going away as many hoped it would, but is instead going the way of irrelevancy and conviction (which are really flip-sides of each other), increasingly willing to condone or commit violence in defense of its idols.

So I will try again to rehabilitate religion to its proper role in personal life and society, this time not by tracing out its system of utilities but instead by looking deeper into the spirituality it intends to embody and express … at least originally. If it doesn’t do this very effectively at our cultural moment, our task should be (I would argue) to deconstruct religion back to its source – not its prehistoric origins but to the source-experience of mystery that informs all true religion, whether animistic, theistic, or post-theistic.Tao PathsI’ve chosen the symbol of Taoism as the backdrop of my illustration above, for the simple reason that it is perhaps the best visual image available for contemplating the nature of reality (or anything) as a dynamic duality of principles. An experience of the present mystery of reality takes place and unfolds along primarily one of two complementary paths, an interior path to the Grounding Mystery (or ground of being) or an exterior path into the Provident Universe (or universal order).

The interior path descends into deeper centers of solitude, progressively farther from the light of sense discrimination and “world awareness,” to the Grounding Mystery where all mental associations and even consciousness of oneself dissolves away. For this reason it is named the “dark path.” This movement apart (or away) from others, objects, and external reality generally is also called apophatic, which refers to the subtraction of words and a refusal to attach mental labels to one’s experience.

A more determined discipline of abandoning names and representations of the mystery is known as renunciation – saying “no” to something that qualifies, delimits, or otherwise interferes with one’s direct experience of the Grounding Mystery. Since the dark path proceeds by separating oneself from surface distractions, surrendering attachments and refusing to put words on the mystery, it often goes by the Latin name via negativa (way of negation). The goal ultimately is to lose (one’s sense of) oneself entirely in mystical union with the Grounding Mystery, to the point where Nothing (literally no thing) remains.

It is out of this ineffable awareness of Real Presence that the meditator will be refreshed in his or her intuition of oneness; that just as his or her deep inner life opens into the Grounding Mystery, so it can be said of all things. The existence of each thing is really a process of be-ing whereby it manifests the mystery of being-itself in its own limited form. All of existence takes on a sacramental character as the outward manifestation of this deep inner mystery.

In many early cultures, and even into the medieval period, a people’s cosmology (their mental model of the universe) was honored as a sacred picture of reality. This helps us understand why the revisions introduced by empirical science were so strongly resisted, and why even Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton initially explained their observations with adjustments, such as epicycles in planetary orbits, that could preserve the sacred cosmology to some extent.

This outward turn leads naturally to our consideration of the second path. The exterior path ascends into higher orders of communion, farther out into the light of sense discrimination and beyond world awareness, to the Provident Universe where all things “turn as one.” At this highest level, nothing is left out and all things exist together as illumined parts of a greater whole. For this reason it is named the “bright path.” This movement towards (or joining as part of) others, objects, or external reality generally is also called kataphatic, which refers to the addition of words and qualifiers in a fuller description of experience.

On this ascending path we are saying “yes” to the distinctions that qualify reality into a Provident Universe, where all things conspire together for the emergence of life and consciousness. Our ability to contemplate this is itself evidence of the fact that our universe is provident, not only in the organism of our body and highly evolved nervous system, but in Earth’s pro-life environment by virtue of its proximity to the Sun, along with the relative position of our galaxy within the expanding fabric of space-time. Theoretically every bit of it makes a contribution to the whole, suggesting that the farthest distant nebulae somehow play (or once played) a part in our present contemplation.

As we move up and out from ourselves, then, we are engaged upon the via positiva, a path where every new encounter is added to our understanding of the whole. The self is not negated but affirmed, world awareness is not renounced but transcended – surpassed and included within a larger frame of communion (literally “together as one”). Whereas the Grounding Mystery is deep within all things and accessible only by the inward via negativa, the Provident Universe is all around each thing and includes all things by the outward via positiva.

Now that we have the two paths of spiritual experience in view, I will draw my reader’s attention to the square at the center of my diagram. This is the box of identity, of the individual personality and its captain ego, which is conditioned according to its driving ambitions for security, attachment, and meaning. Each of us along the way enters into, negotiates, wakes up inside, converts to, and occasionally abandons (betrays, forsakes, releases) the identity contracts that define who we are. The rigid strength of this box is what I call conviction, which is the point where belief takes control of the mind rather than the healthy vice-versa. Just like a convict, an otherwise free and creative intelligence is “bound and determined,” and we all know where that leads.

To the box-dwelling ego, both spiritual paths present an intolerable threat for the simple reason that they require an individual to let go of “me and mine.” Security, attachment, and even the meaning locked up in one’s orthodoxy must be surrendered in the interest of touching and really seeing the present mystery of reality.

But since boxes are easier to manage (as well as mandate on others), most of us choose to stay inside.

 

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