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Personal Myth and the Anatomy of Character

characterThe diagram above illustrates my newly refined definition of religion, as a cultural system that links together (from the Latin religare) individual consciousness (or psychology, represented in the purple triangle) and the larger order of existence (or cosmology, represented in the dome overhead) by means of sacred stories (or mythology, represented in the moving wave between them) that serve to orient us in space, guide us through time, connect us to one another, and support us across the adventure of life.

Once again, I am speaking here of religion itself, not necessarily of this or that religion, numerous examples of which have indeed lost this unifying function and fallen out of relevance in our day. I’ve explored in other posts what happens when religions misread their myths by taking them literally, defend outdated models of reality, and neglect (or even condemn) the inner depths of mystical awareness. They die, but continue on in fundamentalist orthodoxies, megachurch celebrity cults, metaphysical roadshows, or militant end-time sects.

Effective and relevant religion will provide the orientation, guidance, connection, and support that individuals and communities require throughout the full course of human development. Ultimately this will also include breakthrough realizations of a ‘truth beyond’ our conventional beliefs, and of a ‘power within’, deeper even than that cherished center of personal identity (i.e., ego) which religion itself (as theism) had earlier made the focus of salvation. This post-theist excursion into a more experiential, communitarian, and globally-minded spirituality is where the evolutionary design of our human nature is headed.

In a recent post I suggested that the narrative device of Apocalypse, which can be found in all developed mythologies, is not referring to a future cataclysm of world-collapse, but instead represents a self-conscious awareness inside the mythopoetic (storytelling) process itself, of their status as sacred fictions. Outside these narrative constructions of meaning is the present mystery of reality, the terminal end of our stories and thus of the storied world itself.

If mythology has done its work – referring to the orienting, guiding, connecting, and supporting functions mentioned earlier – then we are ready for a psychological breakthrough to a more rational, responsible, and reality-oriented way of life.

My term for this liberated mode of experience is ‘creative authority’: when the individual not only sees through the constructions that had earlier draped both reality and consciousness with veils of meaning, but goes on to take responsibility as the principal author of his or her own personal myth and its associated world. If it sounds like we’re returning to life under the shroud, I must emphasize the key insight of this breakthrough realization, which is that the individual is now a self-conscious storyteller.

In other words, we have entered the ‘ironic mode’ (Northrup Frye) where the storyteller is aware of the fact that he or she is spinning narratives across a mystery that cannot be named.

This brings us to the interesting challenge of composing our own personal myth. The art of storytelling (or myth-making) is millenniums old, which means that we have a vast library and useful tools at our disposal for the project before us. In this post I want to reflect on the features of well-developed character, using this term in its literary and not so much its moral (or moralistic) sense. A character is thus a narrative personification, an identity in story who strives (Greek agon) for (as protagonist) and against (as antagonist) the plot in its unfolding. A ‘good’ character (again, not in the moral sense) is one that evinces certain traits and makes the story particularly interesting.

Our work as self-conscious storytellers of our own personal myths will involve constructing an identity for ourselves that possesses four traits in particular: memory, integrity, grounding, and volition.

Memory

In any good story, character is an identity that becomes stronger (i.e., more definite and self-consistent) over time. A character’s memory has to do with how recognizable it is with respect to what we’ve already come to know about him or her in the story up to this point. The story’s audience starts to anticipate how a character will respond by virtue of how he or she behaved in similar scenes or challenges earlier in the narrative. With growing confidence in a character’s memory, they are better able to trust his or her performance.

As we take responsibility for the construction and management of our personal identity, each of us should consider the fidelity of our character to the person we have been. This is not to suggest that we simply repeat the mistakes of our past, or that spontaneity and fresh departures are out of the question. Even if we should undergo a conversion of some sort, the memory of character will deepen our understanding and empathy for others, adding dimension and complexity to the person we are. This is an aspect of what is known as wisdom. Alternatively, neglecting the character trait of memory can make us insensitive to others, even projecting on them the dark energies of our own repressed and forgotten shadow.

Integrity

If the character trait of memory is what establishes consistency through time, then integrity is about consistency across space, or across the landscape of life situations and social engagements. A narrative character who changes dramatically from one engagement to another leaves the audience unsure as to ‘who’ will show up next. In psychology this lack of consistency across situations is evidence of ‘dissociative identity’ (formerly ‘multiple personality’), where a personality lacks sufficient ego strength to coordinate and unify otherwise diverging streams of subconscious motivation and demeanor.

In the early years of ego formation when we were being shaped, instructed, and managed by our tribe into a compliant member of the group, identity contracts dictated our role in each social situation. Now, stepping through the Apocalypse and into our own creative authority, we can take ‘authorial control’ over the person we want to be. We can join the role-play, fully aware that it is just a social convention in make-believe. Or we might take a stand for a more authentic, self-honest, re-imagined and creative way of being together. This is what Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Grounding

A ‘grounded’ character in story doesn’t simply drift above the moving scenes, essentially detached from the situational dynamics of time and setting. He or she has the feel of belonging, of being rooted in that narrative world and not just an alien passing through. In this sense the story isn’t merely ‘about’ the character, but unfolds around and through the character’s individual evolution.

My returning reader will recognize this idea of grounding from my frequent references to ‘the grounding mystery’, that inner depth of spiritual life where our personal identity sinks and dissolves into an ineffable sense of being. Of course, if ego is caught in a neurotic tangle of insecurity and self-defense, any suggestion of sinking and dissolving into something else will be vigorously resisted, and inevitably misunderstood. Creative authority requires that we ‘loosen up’ and release ourselves to the deeper process, so that we can carry that ‘power within’ into the affairs of our daily life in the world.

Volition

Our fourth and final character trait picks up with that last sentence – as we take action and work out the evolving plot of our personal myth. In story, the action of a ‘weak’ character will be determined by external events and circumstances, whereas a ‘strong’ character chooses and determines it for him- or herself. Volition (from the Latin vol for will) is about a character taking action rather than reacting, moved by an internal drive or desire. The better stories in mythology, literature, film, and stage are those that are driven by strong characters whose action seems to proceed from their center.

As we break through from a mode of role performance (acting out the instructions and expectations of our tribe) to one of role transcendence (using our role in a more purposeful and creative way), we are able to construct a personal myth that supports the life and genuine community we really want. We don’t pick up a mask of identity (a persona) because someone else tells us to, because a tradition (or consensus trance) calls for it. We can live out of our own center, for values and aims that others might not find agreeable. Our action is not about defiance or transgression, but instead arches toward a deeper, higher, or longer goal.


More and more of us are ready for the responsibility of writing our own story, of composing our own personal myth. Our tribe and culture have done their part, for better or worse, and now it’s our turn. We have finally come to realize that our identities and the worlds we inhabit are really nothing more than narrative constructions, meaningful fictions of our personal and interpersonal life.

It is time to step into our own creative authority, take leave of the gods, and become fully human. This is life after the Apocalypse.

 

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Edge Religion

By definition religion is a force for social cohesion. In “linking back” (religare) the many divergent concerns of daily life to a metaphor of ultimate reality, it provides a system of values and constraints that serves to hold a community together. This metaphor isn’t just a name for something already known objectively, but is the vehicle of language that first names the mystery and represents it, locating it amidst and beyond the necessary activities of everyday experience. It is what we call God.

In this view, God (the unnamed mystery) isn’t something that comes to us from somewhere else, even if god (the metaphor) might well encourage the assumption. Whenever we talk about something, we understandably assume that there is some thing we’re talking about. Our talking about it makes this thing better known to our minds. By qualifying and explaining it, we are as it were throwing a net of definition around it and bringing it closer to us. The mystery with which religion is (or at least originally was) chiefly concerned, however, is not a mysterious object to be explained and thereby rendered meaningful. It is rather the deep support and radiant presence of reality felt in the providential uplift of conscious being, of life in this moment.

The God-metaphor, then, or what I simply refer to as “god” (with a lowercase ‘g’), is a product of our imagination, a reflex of the mind to put labels on reality, push it into the distance where we can regard it as “this” or “that,” and then grasp it as an object of understanding. As metaphor (from meta + phorein, to carry across), our representation of God facilitates the experience of mystery across the threshold and into the web of language, where it can be expressed as meaning. Further articulation of meaning is accomplished through the media of art and story, where the metaphor takes on dimension and weight, opening up various ritual ways for us to link daily life back to the present mystery of reality.

So now we can add to our starting definition of religion as the link-back of everyday concerns to a metaphor of ultimate reality, by saying that this is primarily a ritual (ceremonial, sacramental, liturgical) system of social behaviors. In coordinating tribal life in this fashion around a metaphorical representation of the present mystery, social cohesion is successfully maintained. And because it is designed to bring individuals into agreement over their shared identity and specialized responsibilities to the group, I will call this form of religion “conventional theism” (from theos, god with a lowercase ‘g’). It’s been around for many, many thousands of years, and is still the dominant form of religion in our day.Conventional TheismThe illustration above provides a way of understanding conventional theism as coordinating the hearts and minds of individuals, and individuals with the larger group, around the orthodox representation of God (or god). I don’t mean for the balloon with the word “deity” imprinted on it to be taken as a lampoon, but merely to pick up on the point made earlier, that god arises out of the metaphorical imagination and is eventually (if it gains widespread agreement) tethered to the frame of community life as the focus of worship and belief.

Insofar as the deity is made in our image – that is to say, in a way that reflects back to us the personality traits, character strengths, and waking virtues of our own higher nature – it serves to inspire us to life above our animal instincts and juvenile impulses. As we contemplate in our minds and glorify with our hearts this chosen metaphor of God, it represents to us a better part of ourselves that is to some extent still in our developmental future.

Yahweh’s career across the time arc of the Bible demonstrates this dynamic perfectly, beginning as a warrior deity to a band of near-eastern nomadic tribes; taking his place as Lord and Creator in the era of national settlement; reaching out in compassion to the poor and marginalized during the downfall of King David’s dynasty; and resolving at last – around the time of Jesus but most clearly in the life and teaching of the Nazarene – to lift the curse of guilt from his enemies by a unilateral and unconditional forgiveness. If you should put early-Yahweh and late-Yahweh side by side, you would have to conclude that the two were different gods – so great was the evolutionary distance traveled by his community of faith over the course of centuries.

Such an evolutionary view of religion, tracking the developing metaphor of God as a reflection of our spiritual awakening and moral progress in community, must beg the question: Does a time come when the metaphor has served its purpose and is no longer needed? Are there more “mature” approaches to the mystery and our own life adventure, which could help religion stay current with our evolving spirituality? I suggest there are, and even now some forms of conventional theism are beginning to invite these voices of what I call “edge religion” into the conversation.ReligionAnd so I will make yet another appeal on behalf of post-theism – not as an alternative to theism, but rather its natural fulfillment as a system for social cohesion and spiritual guidance. By definition, post-theism explores the frontiers of faith development “outside the box” of conventional religion, but without abandoning the box and trashing its patron deity. The structural support and moral orientation provided by conventional theism is, I will argue, still important and necessary to the formation of faith as individuals (especially the very young) are in the process of having their identities constructed in community with others.

But there comes a time when, for many, the conventional representation of God becomes too small, too confined by doctrines, and increasingly irrelevant to daily life. These are folks who typically begin asking questions and challenging the usual answers inside the box. They are searching for a spiritually grounded way of being in the world, one that can help them continue to evolve in their faith. They aren’t interested in disputing the existence of god, and more of them today are refusing to be converted back to the religion of their youth. Consequently they wander outside the box foraging for spiritual sustenance, sometimes feeling guilty for wanting more (or something else), and often struggling with the loneliness of no longer having a community.

But there is hope. As I said, some theistic religions and denominations are providing space for these “edge dwellers” – and they have something of great value to contribute. Basically they come in two varieties, and it’s not unusual to find both strains of post-theism in the same individual. They represent the mystical and ethical edges of conventional religion, although they have no interest in merely recovering that familiar warm feeling in worship or sifting through the commentaries of church doctrine. They bring tools.

Let’s recall the significance of that balloon tethered to the frame of conventional theism. It is the preferred metaphor of God, the orthodox representation of the present mystery within and all around us. It calls to us – reminding us of who we are, where we belong, how we should behave, and why we are here. But when (not if) the individual’s spiritual capacity and depth of experience is no longer promoted by the god we all know, something needs to be done with that balloon.

Those post-theists who are mystically oriented wield the tool of a straight pin. They help us to realize – on the likely chance we have forgotten – that our representations of God are constructs of our minds, a convenience of language in providing handles on reality. These metaphors are not simply labels affixed to a literal being “out there” and separate from us, but rather spring from the inner life of the soul where we rest in the provident mystery of Life itself. Popping the balloon is not intended as sacrilege or “atheism”; it is what’s required if we are to experience the ineffable presence, the unnamed and unnameable ground of Being.

Ethically oriented post-theists are often motivated out of a concern that the so-called “will of God” has become too predictable, too much an endorsement of our petty ambitions and self-serving moralities. They bring scissors. By snipping the balloon string, these revolutionaries want to return freedom, unbounded generosity, and creative license to our metaphor of God, which means that we need to release our patron deity into the infinite sky, into the God beyond god. Only when God is no longer “our god” will religion be able to reach out to the stranger, love the enemy, and include everyone without judgment but rather in celebration of community.

We will never be without religion. However religion will be without more and more of us until it welcomes those on the edge and listens to what they have to say.

 
 

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Flow in the Creative Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                           

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

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

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

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

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

Take care of yourself.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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Faith and Being

Schleiermacher: “The contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal. Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves, in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering. It is to have life and to know life in immediate feeling.”

By the late-eighteenth century, Christianity had already become a house divided. On one side were those who believed that Christian distinctiveness was a doctrinal matter, while others insisted it was a matter of morals. Christians hold particular doctrines that identify them as Catholic or Protestant, Baptist or Methodist, liberal or conservative. But Christians should also behave in a way that is obedient to the great ethical precepts found in the Bible, such as loving the neighbor and following Jesus.

While both sides acknowledged the importance of doctrines and morals, each promoted one as more important than the other. Salvation is a matter of thinking right (doctrines) and doing good (morals), but either the mind or the will has priority. The “cultured despisers” to whom Schleiermacher directed his Speeches were members of both camps, and each tended to regard the other as missing the mark.

These house divisions in Christianity were reflected in the larger culture as well. Science and philosophy – disciplines of the mind – were having great success in classifying reality into separate domains of human knowledge. But so too, government and business – disciplines of the will – were beginning to regulate human behavior into the various zones of public life. Western culture at large, then, gave religion two choices on where to stand: mind or will, doctrines or morals, thought or behavior, thinking right or doing good.

Schleiermacher saw a problem in this – a big and potentially fatal problem for Christianity and the culture as a whole. Whether we are thinking about something or striving for something, the “something” is always separate and apart from us. While the mind frames and arranges its objects, and the will fixes and pursues its outcomes, the immediacy of experience itself is left behind.

Is experience essentially what we think or what we do? Neither one, says Schleiermacher. Rather it is the “feeling and intuition” of being alive in this moment. The farther we step into mind or will, the more we remove ourselves from the heart where the true pulse of the present is found.

To understand what Schleiermacher means by “feeling” we might place it visually at the bottom of a “V” shape. From feeling we can move up into emotion, which generates motion in behavior; or we can move up into attitude, which establishes the position from whence we take our perspective on reality. Both emotion and attitude are derived from feeling but stretch it out, so to speak, either into action or thought. Still farther out are the outcomes of behavior and objects of thought – the morals and doctrines of religion’s cultured despisers.

Deep within ourselves – if we will only open our attention to it – is the feeling of experience, at the point where our life is grounded in present reality. Because the immediacy of experience lies beneath and is prior to the operations of mind and will, its ground is properly regarded as ineffable (beyond words) and spontaneous (without purpose). Yet it is precisely there that we are one with all, and all is one.

To arrive at this still-point (though in fact we never left, nor can we leave) it becomes necessary at times to drop our thoughts and surrender the urgency to act. In quiet contemplation we can enter that internal space where doctrines and morals can be appreciated as but secondary extensions of a primary and eternal life. Otherwise, if we are too tied up in the beliefs and goals that make our lives meaningful, we can end up dying on the inside, strangled in our own web. When being right or doing good are taken as the keys to salvation, the forces of orthodoxy and righteousness can actually become demonic.

We forget that our true healing as human beings comes when mind and will are reconciled in the heart, when we can stop grasping and chasing after meaning and simply dwell in the real presence of mystery.

So what can we say about faith, in light of Schleiermacher’s model of the heart, mind, and will? First of all, faith must not be confused with doctrines and thinking right, nor is it about morals and doing good. It’s not what you believe or even how you live.  It isn’t about the meaning of life or how to get to heaven.

Instead, faith is about being well – grounded, present, centered and whole. Right now.

 

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