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Practicing Wisdom

In a recent post titled Living By Wisdom I reminded my reader of five principles that humans over many thousands of years have drawn from their experience and clarified, like pure gold from the dross of daily life, into a perennial tradition of deep insights into the nature of reality, authentic self, and genuine community. I say “reminded” because I believe we each have this same plumline of contemplative intuition whereby such wisdom is accessed, to whatever extent it may be obstructed by daily distractions, personal ambitions, and close-minded convictions.

The perennial tradition of spiritual wisdom is a shared project combining archetypes of our collective unconscious (C.G. Jung) and aspirations of a transcultural vision of our evolutionary fulfillment as one species within the great Web of Life. While the archetypes (e.g., Ground, Abyss, Self, Other, and God) drive our development from below conscious awareness and can only be brought to consciousness through the vehicles of metaphor and myth, the apirations of this transcultural wisdom (e.g., Presence, Communion, Awakening, Liberation, and Wholeness) depend for their propagation through the generations on constructive dialogue and intentional practice.

That earlier post briefly expounded on five wisdom principles in particular, perhaps the most universal and enduring insights our species has discovered over the past who knows how many thousands (maybe even millions) of years.

  1. Cultivating inner peace is key to making peace with others.

  2. Living for the wellbeing of the greater Whole promotes health and happiness for oneself.

  3. Opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations.

  4. Letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise.

  5. Living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

In this post I want to launch from that last one in particular, as it is really the ur-principle or “most essential truth” assumed in the other four. Simply put, we won’t appreciate or benefit from the other wisdom principles until we can manage to see beyond ourselves – both individually and as a species.

This meditation is especially timely now, as collectively we seem to be contracting into ever smaller and more defendable horizons of identity. The anthropocentric (human-centered) worldview of the last few thousand years has further collapsed to ethnocentric, nationalistic, ideological, and egocentric (self-centered) boundaries – each contraction seeking a patch of emotional real estate that feels more managable and secure.

An obvious problem with this quest for safety and control is that we have to separate ourselves from the greater communion of Life in order to find it. Nevertheless it continues to elude us. Indeed our insecurity only grows more intense and unmanageable the further into isolation we go.

If the nature of reality is communion (All is One), then separating ourselves from it will inevitably throw us into an untenable, and certainly not sustainable, situation.

In Living By Wisdom I referred to a spiritual pandemic that has been ravaging our species for some time now, described in Principle 5 as loneliness, hypertension, and early death. It may seem odd at first that hypertension and early death, which are obvious physiological maladies, should be identified as symptoms of a “spiritual” pandemic. The incongruity, however, is only in our minds, as they have been conditioned over many centuries of ideological brainwashing (conventionally called “education”) to divide “soul” and “body,” “self” and “other,” “human” and “nature.”

According to the perennial wisdom tradition, these dualisms are constructs of language and belief and have no basis in the true nature of things. Dividing and opposing them as we have, it should not surprise us if we are suffering for our “sin” (literally separating or dislocating ourselves from reality). Our suffering is not so much a punishment (ala theistic religion) as a certain consequence of our self-isolation.

Those consequences should then be read in reverse to reveal the real pathology of our spiritual pandemic: an early death is the fallout of hypertension (the internal effects of chronic frustration, anxiety, and autoimmunity), which is itself a manifestation of our profound loneliness – of feeling that we are estranged from the whole of life and utterly on our own in the world.

Despite the infinite variety of distractions at our fingertips, and even surrounded by countless others equally distracted, we are dying of loneliness.

So what can we do? Just jumping into a crowd or trying to fill our emptiness with comfort food, prescription medications, material possessions, self-improvement programs, or ‘heroic’ achievement won’t fix our problem because none of these strategies acknowledge or address the underlying cause. If you’ve fallen for any of these “sure fixes” to your existential loneliness, you can verify from personal experience the futility of the effort. With every failure, your feeling of isolation and hopelessness intensifies.

Reaching back into our collective heritage of shared wisdom, we will find the answer to our question. Here are four practices, validated by millions just like you over many thousands of years and across the world’s many cultures, both ancient and modern.

Wisdom Practice 1

Get grounded.

The metaphor of ground in the perennial wisdom tradition is used to represent the present mystery of reality as both source and support of your life. Ground is always beneath and within you, which means that it’s always and only here and now. Our loneliness is generated by the illusion of our separateness, that we are not actually in the here-and-now. But where else can we be?

When you say or think, “I feel lonely,” it is from the perspective of your self-conscious personal identity, or ego (Latin for “I”). Ego is conspicuous for its lack of reality, as it is merely a construct of personal self-reference and social agency shaped and installed by your tribe in early childhood and reinforced by society ever since. Its existence is suspended like a tightrope between “the past” and “the future,” neither of which has reality in the here-and-now. Your past and future are a highly curated selection of memories and fantasies composed into a personal myth that tells the story of who you are.

Just as the story itself is an edited compilation of what you (choose to) remember and expect, the “I” who is defined by the story is also a fictional construct.

Your ground is not in your ego for the simple reason that your ego is separated from the here-and-now by this highwire act of your personal myth. To get grounded requires that you drop out of your story and into your body, which is always present. The “you” that drops is not your ego, but rather your embodied mind, the living sentient center of present awareness. Getting grounded, then, means dropping into your living presence where the sentient life of your body is experienced as both source and support.

A simple breathing meditation – attending to your breath, counting its rhythm, feeling the gentle expansion and relaxation, the deepening calm of inner peace – is the easiest, quickest, and most common wisdom practice for getting grounded.

Wisdom Practice 2

Find your center.

This wisdom practice follows very naturally on the first one, but whereas getting grounded is about dropping out of your story and into your body, finding your center shifts the intention from letting go to gathering consciousness around a deeper locus of contemplative awareness. Now, free of all identity contracts and future projects, without beliefs to hold everything at a distance, a sense of boundless presence radiates outward from where you are.

From that deep center of boundless presence nothing is separate, everything is connected, and All is One. Consciousness is not tethered to and limited by a personal identity, nor is it domesticated and contained inside a world where you pretend to be somebody.

The center of awareness deep within you, taking in the vast reality all around you, is the universe becoming conscious of itself.

Wisdom Practice 3

Connect to what matters.

While still fully identified with your ego and its managed world, the dual drives of craving and fear magnetize everything around you as either “for me” or “against me.” Your values and choices fall in line with your ambitions in life, and anything that doesn’t fit on one side or the other is either dismissed, ignored, or goes unnoticed.

When you live in the delusion of your separateness, what ultimately matters is determined by how safe, loved, capable, or worthy something or someone makes you feel. And because ego consciousness is inherently insecure, your attachments, fantasies, and concerns only conspire to make you more anxious, motivating you to shrink your world-horizon even further so as to reduce exposure and tighten your control.

In this state you cannot see anything for what it is in itself, and anyone in relationship with you feels trapped by the snares of your selfish and unrealistic demands.

From your deeper contemplative center of boundless presence, however, your perspective is unbiased and clear-sighted. You can consider your human journey and life-arrangement and ask, “What truly matters? What do I want to cultivate from the fertile ground of what I am and what I might still become? Where are my anchors of timeless (i.e., eternal) value? What ideals shall I live my life by, and what higher virtues still call to me?”

Wisdom Practice 4

Be the change you want to see.

The four wisdom practices finally culminate in this one, which exhorts us to actualize the noble intentions and higher ideals we have just clarified. There’s no arguing against the therapeutic benefits of reciting inspirational thoughts to ourselves. By putting them in our journals, taping them to our bathroom mirrors, and sticking them on refrigerator doors, we create timely reminders of the New Reality we aspire to and hope to inhabit some day.

Here is one more example of a division generated out of the delusion of our separateness, this time between knowledge and action, theory and practice, truth (on the side of knowledge and theory) and power (in practical action). Wisdom does not recognize this division, teaching instead that an enlightened understanding of the way things really are will manifest directly – we might even say spontaneously – in how we live and what we do.

So, take anything from the list of what matters most to you and convert it into an action. If it’s kindness, then be kind. If it’s love, then be loving. If it’s peace, then become a peacemaker. If it’s inclusion, then open your life to a stranger. The world around you will start to change as you put into it the virtues you hope to find.

It may take some time, so be patient and keep practicing!

 

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A Sacred Place

Take a moment to reflect on the long journey that’s brought you here. So many twists and turns, so many ups and downs. It’s not been easy, and yet somehow you’ve managed to arrive right where you are. Your peculiar quirks and hangups, along with many endearing qualities and positive strengths, testify to an undeniable resilience through hardship, suffering, and loss. No one else in the history of humanity has traveled your exact path, and yet here you are, along with nearly 8 billion other unique individuals – just like you.

You stand out from the rest not only by virtue of the timeline of events that have shaped you into the person you are today, but also by your nature as a self-conscious individual, as one in whom the sentient powers of consciousness have turned inward to become aware of being aware – and of being seen by others.

What we have described so far can be called the formation of your identity, as at once a product or outcome of the past, and an expression or differentiation of self-conscious awareness out of the grounding mystery of being. I don’t mean that to sound overly metaphysical, as if the pre-differentiated ground is (mis)taken as something else, other than you. That deeper mystery of physical life and sentient mind is what has become conscious of itself as you. You stand out from it but are not really separate from it.

I’m going to use the terms “character” and “existence” to name these correlated dimensions that have conspired in the formation of who you are. Character traces the path of life events and your response to those events, as they have been steadily shaping your habits of attitude, belief, judgment, and motivation. With time and experience, the habit of who you are (i.e., your character) has grown more persistent and predictable – just ask those who have known you for a while.

What we commonly call a “strong character” can refer to a habit of identity that is either inflexible in its convictions or creatively resilient, depending on whether your learned response to life has been encoded on the imperative of CONTROL or on that of GROWTH.

Existence is being used in its exact Greek meaning, referring to the act or process of standing out (existere) as an individual, both from a state of pure potentiality and from the general mass of anonymous others. The philosophy of Existentialism has a very diverse world-wide and historical representation, but its central tenet is the human individual as a unique center of experience, standing out in full exposure to the conditions of ambiguity, finitude, and extinction.

In view of such exposure, the existentialists generally forsake all departure narratives (future utopias, heavenly afterlife, or reincarnation) designed to pacify our death anxiety, and instead grapple with how the individual can live an authentic, responsible, creative, and liberated life – in the time they have left to live.

Existentialism is similar to religion in the way it refuses to merely meditate on theoretical abstractions, but rather seeks to resolve or overcome what it regards as forces presently enthralling the human spirit. And while the myths of religion depict this condition in florid metaphors of primordial, supernatural, heroic, and apocalyptic events, Existentialism (and post-theistic religion generally) interprets it psychodynamically, as complications of ego formation.

Put simply, the process of your standing out in self-conscious identity has had to negotiate or contend with certain habits developed around your need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Because the satisfaction of these subjective needs was occasionally (or often) challenged by less-than-provident circumstances, you had to compensate your feeling unsafe by taking control, your need for love with attachment, your impotency with coercive aggression, and your sense of unworthiness by trying to please others and amount to something in their eyes.

If this profile resembles you to any degree, it’s only because it is archetypal and reflects the early emotional landscape of every human being who has ever lived.

The compensatory strategies just outlined conspire energetically to close your identity down to where you can manage the insecurity and still get by. On the negative side, they also hold you down (and back) from fulfillment. I’m using this word not in the popular and superficial sense of a happy self-satisfaction, but rather in reference to the process of awakening, cultivating, expressing, and fully realizing the deepest potential of your human nature.

A self-conscious personal identity which might otherwise actualize this deep potential in creative and responsible ways, instead holds it hostage inside a cage of neurotic and self-defensive fear.

When you are properly centered in yourself and free to be yourself, you can choose to go beyond (or transcend) yourself in the higher experiences of communion. The truth is that all things exist together as one, as manifestations of and participants in the same reality. This Shining Truth is invisible to – or rather we should say it is obscured by – the insecure ego whose makeshift walls of security close out the light.

Right now, you can choose to step outside and join the One Song and Turning Dance (uni-verse) of it all.

Depending on how small you have made yourself, your spiritual prison break could release a thermonuclear radiance of inner peace, unconditional love, and boundless joy. As you plug into the Source and get carried away, nothing about your life prior to now will be the same. Your anxieties will vanish. Your frustrations will dissolve. Your resentments will fade, as your guilt falls away.

Take a moment to reflect on the long journey that’s brought you here. No one else in the history of humanity has traveled your exact path, and yet here you are. 

This is indeed a sacred place.

 

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Becoming Homo Sapiens

When modern science organized the taxonomy of living things on Earth, it placed our own species in position with an almost religious confidence, as the “wise one” (Latin homo sapiens) among all the creatures. At the time there seemed good reason for such high regard, as we clearly possessed traits and abilities that put us above the rest. It remains an open question, however, whether self-selecting as “wise” was more of an aspirational reach than evidence-based assessment.

Wisdom is not a new interest of ours by any stretch. It can be argued that homo sapiens began its unique advance in evolution as we applied our speculative (outward-looking) and contemplative (inward-looking) intelligence to the mysteries of existence. Since prehistoric times humans have had a keen interest in understanding our place in the wonder of it all.

The so-called wisdom traditions of our separate world cultures are so many tributaries of one ancient stream, bubbling up from the same wellspring – not so much “back there” as “in here,” deep in our individual psyche.

At times along the way, this living stream of spiritual wisdom has gotten blocked by other forces which seem more pressing and urgent. It’s always tempting to temporarily suspend our consideration of interests farther out and later on, of anything that is not inside the immediate circle of “me and mine,” in order that we can address and hopefully resolve the urgency.

We possess a deep knowing, for instance, that All is OneEverything is Connected, and We are All in this Together – three wisdom principles that are not mere logical conclusions, but rather intuitive insights drawn from our direct experience of reality. We know these truths, and yet we frequently choose to ignore them in the choices we make.

Such willful disregard is what Alan Watts called ignórance, referring not to something we don’t know but to our habit of disregarding what we know so we can do what we want.

My diagram places wisdom (sapiens) in what Abraham Maslow called the “farther reaches of human nature” – as the future fulfillment of our deepest potential as a species. It stands at the higher pole of a continuum opposite to instinct, which we have in common with all the other animals. Between the two poles and serving as a kind of phase transition from instinct to wisdom is belief.

Each of these is a kind of behavior program, a distinct set of codes that motivates humans to behave and actively engage with our environment.

In Darwinian terms we can further say that our behavior will either fit us adaptively to our environment or else put us (and our environment) at risk of damage and possible extinction.

For its part, instinct is unthinking and compulsive, driven by codes deep-set in our animal nature. At the other end, wisdom is exquisitely thoughtful and visionary, lifting consciousness to transpersonal ideals, larger horizons, and longer aims.

As the transitional stage between instinct and wisdom, beliefs and belief systems have dominated the human experience for thousands of years.

Homo credulitas is probably a more fitting nomenclature, since this long historical epoch of our evolutionary rise into tribes, cities, nation-states, civilizations, and the contemporary pan-global culture is made possible by a unique ability of our mind to construct around us an envelope of meaning called a world.

A world is a more or less personal construction of language that helps us feel secure, serves as context for our identity, orients us in reality, and clarifies a meaning for life.

These four functions of our world – security, identity, orientation, and meaning – connect neatly at the corners to form a box containing everything that matters to us. We live for what’s inside the box, we obsess over what’s inside the box, and if it comes down to it, we will kill defending what’s inside the box. The American box is different in big ways from the Iranian box, and inside each of these are many more boxes – religious traditions, political parties, social classes – which further contain millions more individual worlds, each unique in lesser but still exceptional ways.

Smaller boxes contained in bigger boxes, contained in still bigger boxes, until we come to the biggest box of all where all of us are insisting to the rest of us that our world is the real world, the way things really are.

And of course, we have to believe this, since it is believing which makes it so, recalling that all of these boxes, from the small-scale individual to the large-scale global, are made of beliefs, are quite literally make-believe.

That such a claim sounds ludicrous and is itself unbelievable actually substantiates its validity, insofar as our mind cannot believe “outside the box.” We can indeed think outside our box, but it takes both practice and courage since breaking past the outer boundary of belief also requires that we move beyond the security, identity, orientation and meaning of life inside the box. If all these things are constructions of belief, then reality – not the “real world” but the really real, existence as such – is beyond belief, indescribably perfect in itself, transcendent even of meaning and therefore perfectly meaningless.

If you can’t believe this, then, in the words of Jesus, you are not far from the kingdom of God. Maybe very close, but not quite.

Recalling those wisdom principles from earlier – All is One, Everything is Connected, and We are All in this Together – we get a sense of how their truth stands beyond belief. It doesn’t matter which boxes you happen to occupy (or that hold you captive), whether you are rich or poor, white, black, brown, or green. They are not articles of belief, much in the same way that gravity is independent of whether or what you may believe about it. They don’t need validation from any source other than your own direct experience.

If you let yourself, these timeless insights into reality will resonate with your own true nature and lift your consciousness far above the ego concerns of “me and mine.”

Now ask yourself, How shall I live in light of these self-evident truths? If you’re not going to ignore them and do what you want, then what difference will they make? How will the full acceptance of their truth inspire you to leave your box and live a truly liberated life?

Welcome, “wise one.” Your higher adventure is now ready to begin.

 

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Living By Wisdom

Times of urgency and extreme hardship have the effect of either pulling us closer together or pushing us farther apart. Our present crisis is doubly hard, in that keeping our distance from each other is how we demonstrate our mutual care and respect. Reflecting on this strange predicament, I find myself turning once again to the great depository of worldwide spiritual wisdom.

Just as animal instinct has driven our survival and adaptation as a species over millions of years of evolution, our gradual rise along the gradient of cultural awakening has been building on an accumulation of insights and principles – what Aldous Huxley named the Perennial Philosophy. It is at once a product of our “love of wisdom” (philo-sophia) and a deep tradition that flows like an underground stream of enduring truths beneath the remarkable variation of world cultures.

As I said, suffering can move us closer or drive us apart. Whichever way it goes has everything to do with the depth of our empathy and breadth of our compassion. To me, these are not two words for the same thing. Empathy (“in-feeling”) is a function of our own individual grounding and thoughtful engagement with experiences of pain, loss, failure, bereavement, loneliness, disorientation, anxiety, frustration, and disappointment – in other words, with the more or less normal range of human experience.

A deep and thoughtful acquaintance with our own human experience attunes us, as it were, to the similar experiences of others. Compassion (“with-feeling”) is itself a symptom of our own self-understanding as limited, fallible, vulnerable, and dependent beings. Only one who has empathy by virtue of such an honest and humble self-regard can reach out to another with genuine understanding and love.

Together, then, empathy and compassion have provided the “lift” of our human awakening over the millenniums. By their internal-external, contemplative-ethical dynamic we have been slowly rising – with many setbacks along the way – into the liberated life of human fulfillment.

In recent times, and perhaps particularly in the North Atlantic capitalist nations, the erosion of community and a sense of belonging to something larger, deeper, and other than ourselves as individuals has put us at risk of losing our spiritual bearings. Just now, we need to bring those age-old principles of wisdom back out into the open where we can reflect on them, engage in dialogue with each other on their import, and work diligently to put them into practice – before it’s too late.

In this post I will offer what I regard as the five principles of spiritual wisdom found in the Perennial Philosophy, buried beneath the countless distractions of daily life and willfully ignored over many generations and by many of us, to our peril.

Wisdom Principle 1

Cultivating inner peace is key to making peace with others.

We cannot coexist well and get along with others if we are at conflict within ourselves. Our insecurities drive us to attach ourselves emotionally to what, and to whom, we hope will pacify our anxiety. But nothing and no one can make us feel secure, for the simple reason that existence itself is not secure. The harder we grip down on a pacifier, the faster it slips from our grasp, leaving us feeling rejected, abandoned, and resentful. So we try reinforcing our attachments with ultimatums, convictions, and guarantees, which only amplifies our fundamental problem.

The real solution, of course, is to release our demands, surrender the outward search for perfect security, and settle into our own center. Inner peace is an inwardly grounded and centered calm, a profound composure that is not borrowed or derived, but discovered again (and again) in the depths of our being. By its virtue we are able to make peace with others, creating relationships that embody and express its quiet and steadfast strength.

Wisdom Principle 2

Living for the wellbeing of the greater Whole promotes health and happiness for oneself.

With our focus (bordering on fixation) on the unique individual’s pursuit of happiness, the larger surrounding reality becomes little more than context, a static background for each person’s adventure through life. We take what we feel we need, and a little extra – or maybe a lot. Nature is here for us, the planet is ours. Other people are the supporting cast of our life story. The whole thing moves and gears together for our benefit.

Missing from this mindset is an awareness that “the whole thing” is not something else. We don’t occupy some privileged position apart from it all, from whence we can take our pick, gain possession, and toss aside what we don’t want. As Gregg Levoy says in his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “There is no ‘out’, as in ‘taking the garbage out’.” When we really understand and accept the fact that we all belong and are interconnected, our choices and behaviors begin to honor the wellbeing of the Whole. In the words of Chief Seattle, what we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves.

Wisdom Principle 3

Opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations.

A correlate to the insight of how human health and personal happiness are expressions of wellbeing throughout the systems in which they belong is an almost intuitive sense of how actions here and today will inevitably bring about consequences later on and even elsewhere. When we lack inner peace, the churning anxiety within characteristically generates a sense of urgency, forging a dangerous amalgam of anxiety, aggression, and a mounting desperation. Our perspective collapses to the immediate horizon and nothing else seems to matter.

It’s probably unrealistic, psychologically speaking, to expect individuals who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed to open their frame and take a longer view on life. It is a proven fact, however, that strengthening this skill as a regular habit of daily living will serve as a prophylactic against anxious feelings and make it more likely that its benefits will be available when the time comes.

Wisdom Principle 4

Letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise.

It can be argued that a retributive reflex is coded into our animal DNA, causing us without thinking to snap back in retaliation when attacked. Our big and sophisticated brain has enabled us to spin a large web of associations around this experience of being attacked, to include also violations of trust, transgressions of values, false accusations, assaults on our character, social embarrassment, and slights of every kind. If any of these things should happen – or even if we feel they have happened when they really haven’t – a retributive reflex rises up and snaps back on our assailant. We can’t deny the sweet satisfaction we relish when we “pay back” what we feel is deserved.

This particular wisdom principle was one that Jesus made the centerpiece of his New World vision. He saw the damage all around him caused by the retributive reflex – between neighbors, social classes, ethnic groups, political parties, and religious denominations. With each assault, the injured one felt justified in getting even; which of course was then regarded by the original offender as unwarranted and demanding revenge. On and on it would go, tightening down and spreading out in greater damage with every turn of so-called “justice.”

The advice of Jesus? Hold back that reflex and make room for a different kind of response, one that returns good for evil, love instead of hate, creativity rather than destruction.

Wisdom Principle 5

Living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

This final principle from the Perennial Philosophy has more of a negative ring to it, counseling against the tendency in each of us to make it “all about me.” In a way, this principle is telling us, “If you choose to willfully ignore the first four wisdom principles, then there’s something for sure you can count on: You will suffer.” Not because someone is making us suffer, but simply as a natural outcome of our unrelenting self-obsession.

Loneliness, hypertension, and early death might be considered the three faces of a worldwide spiritual pandemic that has been spreading throughout our population for a while now. Like many other species, humans are social creatures, and our full development requires trusting bonds, healthy connections, mutual cooperation and creative dialogue with others. Deficient of such interactions we feel isolated and lonely, manifesting in our bodies as a syndrome of comorbid symptoms, chronic dysfunction, and a host of diseases placed in the curious category of “autoimmunity,” where the body eventually destroys itself.


I find myself wondering what would happen if we actually lived by the spiritual principles of our collective wisdom. How would the world be different if each of us cultivated inner peace, lived for the greater good, took a longer view on life, loved our enemies, and accepted our creative authority to be the difference we want to see?

No doubt, it would be a very different world.

 

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Human and Fully Alive

The attraction of any so-called unified theory is in its claim to bring several previously disparate and unreconciled things into a single all-inclusive picture or account. One of my abiding aspirations over the years has been to clarify a unifed theory of human nature, an “anthropology” that doesn’t reduce us to dumb matter or deify us as immortal spirits. Somewhere in between those hopeless abstractions is what we really are – human manifestations of being, or human beings.

Somewhat in the spirit of existentialist philosophy, my interest is not in reductions or abstractions, but rather in the human experience of being alive and somewhere on the path to realizing the potential of what we are and still might become.

If we’re going to figure this out, we have just this one lifetime to do it – however long or short it turns out to be. Extending this project over numerous lifetimes or into infinite time may calm our insecurities to some extent, but with the urgency also suspended it becomes easier to stay in bed and only dream our life away.

In my effort toward a unified theory of human nature and its evolutionary prospects, I offer the above diagram as something of a mandala or “sacred design” to orient our meditation. Its central image is an arrow drawn back on a bowstring, ready to launch into whatever is next. For now, however, it is intended to capture the tensive character of our nature as in a state of perpetual near-release, always becoming and never finally arrived.

Positioned at the cardinal points of my mandala are four attractors, each pulling us into its unique field of possibilities and concerns, as it simulaneously pulls against those opposite to it.

This helps us to quickly appreciate the tension inherent in human nature, seeking some kind of balance between animal instinct and spiritual wisdom, between tribal conscience and personal ambition. A human being strives for survival and longs for wellbeing; seeks affiliation with others of its kind and pursues its own individual achievement.

Jumping into the details of the mandala, we will keep this overall tension in mind as we trace the developmental path that each of us follows on our “hero’s journey.” Necessarily, then, we begin our meditation where each of us begins life: as newborns supported in the rhythms, urgencies, and drives of an animal nature. Our instincts are millions of years deep in the evolutionary design of the body, compelling our searching behavior for what the life-force in us requires: air, water, nourishment, warmth, refuge and loving touch.

This is our “first nature,” referring to what comes first in development as well as what supports everything else from its primal depths.

The prehistory of our species is the long road into Eden, as living forms and nervous systems progressed through the gauntlet of chance, opportunity, catastrophe and extinction. Any theory of human nature, it seems to me, must acknowledge our first nature as essential to what we are – not as some “mortal coil” by which we are temporarily bound, but as a marvel of biological intelligence and our guest pass to the grand ball of our living planet.

Following upward now that lower angle of the bowstring, we come to what first welcomes us to our human adventure: our tribe of family and familiars, a peculiar society comprised of mother and all the others. This is where the social construction project of our “second nature” begins, with the concern of our tribe being to shape the impulses and inclinations of our first nature into something that both reflects and compliments its collective identity.

What I call the moral frame refers to a shared understanding, if not quite universal agreement, of what makes an action “right” and a person “good.” Every tribe has one, and each of us was brought up to follow this code and honor the norms of a moral life. The bonds of attachment that sustained us as newborns gradually expanded and differentiated into a network of tribal affiliations, and it is in this “second womb” of our tribe that our personal identity was forged and fashioned.

If all went reasonably well, we took on the shared wisdom (literally a con-science) of morality that would prompt, censure, and guide our interactions with others.

But it didn’t go entirely without complications. And this reminds us again of the tension in our nature as human beings – following now the shaft of my arrow rightwards to its point. Another aspect of our second nature, of our emerging personal identity, is an individual will that wants us to stand on our own and fulfill our desires.

If our prehistory as a species was a long road into Eden, then the seduction of ego-gratification represents the “fall” of separation consciousness and the loss of our nursery paradise. Many of the mythological accounts of how we got into our present predicament characterize this “tragedy” as the necessary precursor to a more mature, adult, and self-possessed mode of being in the world.

Where it left us was in the middle of two powerful and countervailing forces: a tribal conscience pulling us into conformity with the moral status quo on one side, and on the other a personal ambition to be somebody, to achieve something momentous, and to procure for ourselves the elusive elixir of happiness. This tension – or is it a contradiction? – seems to be built right into our word “ambition,” where two things (ambi) compete for the upper hand: approval and fulfillment, fear and desire, obedience or freedom.

We can get caught here, not fully on one side or the other but suspended in a sticky web of guilt for falling short of social expectations, and self-reproach for giving up on our dreams.

But let’s go back again to that second womb of our tribal identity, and this time take the upper angle of the bowstring to the top cardinal point of my mandala. This is our “higher nature,” commonly confused these days with the glorified and exalted ego, which is really just one way the tension of our second nature can snap, the other being toward a self-negating sense of depravity over never being good enough. What I mean by our higher nature is the liberated life made available to us as we are able to transcend ego and its conflicting motivations to please others and gratify ourselves.

Only as we can drop from our separate center of personal identity and identify with a larger horizon of membership – not just “my tribe” or “our people” or even the human species alone, but with everyone and life itself: the whole shebang – will we finally understand, from experience, that All is One and we are all in this together. The spiritual wisdom traditions are remarkably unanimous in their agreement concerning our place in, and responsibility to, the community of beings that is our universe.

Seeking wholeness, making peace, and promoting the wellbeing of our planetary home circles back to us in the joy of being human and fully alive.

 

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Living From Our Higher Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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