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In the Beginning

In the Genesis myth of chapter one, the breath (spirit) of God hovers over the primordial waters – the one element in creation that is co-eternal with God (so technically not a creation). God says, “Let there be …” and therewith issues forth light followed by the rest of the cosmic order: the dome of the sky with its sun, moon, and stars; the salt seas, freshwater rivers, and rain stores above the clouds; then comes the fertile disk of earth itself with its flora and fauna and, at last, the first humans standing squint-eyed in the radiant splendor of it all.

Now if we take the view of biblical literalists, the truth of this marvelous account lies in its factual accuracy in describing the origins of the universe and our place in it. We must think of it, that is to say, as referring to an event in the past – the very earliest past, to the beginning of time itself, whether 6,000 years ago (according to a strict literal reckoning) or fourteen billion, as proposed by modern science. Regardless, it happened long ago, and here we are.

The problems with taking the Bible literally this way are numerous, but perhaps the most serious problem is that it makes the Bible into something it isn’t. When its stories are read as eye-witness records of miracles and metaphysics, they lose their power as sacred fiction and become falsifiable. Not only scientific scrutiny, but rational logic and adult common sense must be given the privilege of testing the claims of a literal Bible. In that case, the evidence and arguments against its truth (as factual accuracy) are fully persuasive, leaving a literalist no choice but to reject science, rationality, and the obvious so the Bible can stand alone as revelation.

There is another way, which actually returns to the Bible some of its authority as holy writ. Before I demonstrate what I mean, by using the Genesis myth referenced above, we need to remember that these sacred stories were not originally rendered in writing and kept in books, but instead were composed and recited for audiences in settings of ritual performance. An often overlooked consequence of transcribing oral narratives into written documents is that the present-time immediacy of a live storytelling audition gets reduced and flattened to mere words on a page. Furthermore, the sacred act of storytelling – of bringing scenes and characters to life – is utterly eclipsed, leaving only the scenes and characters of another time and place, fixed and passive under the distancing control of the reader’s eye, susceptible to being skipped or reviewed as interest demands.

So really we should imagine an ancient ritual ceremony where the story of creation is being performed in real time, with the storyteller speaking and gesturing before a congregation in raptured imagination. What is this myth revealing, if more than factual information about how the universe came to be? One thing, certainly, is that everything starts with God, or better, with that ineffable mystery of intention and causality to which this dry and overused name refers. We’re hearing about – or are we hearing directly from? – the primal source and creative intelligence behind the world as we know it. Yes, but not about or from something else, not a supernatural or metaphysical being – back there, up there, out there.

I propose that this story is sacred because it reveals us to ourselves, as the world creators we are. My returning reader is likely familiar with my term ‘creative authority’ as referring to the achievement of self-actualization, something of an apotheosis of maturity where an individual takes responsibility for the authorship of his or her own personal myth (i.e., identity) and construction of meaning (i.e., world). Up to this point the authority has been in other hands, those taller powers (parents, guardians, and other tribal handlers) who conspire to shape youngsters into compliant members of the group. At maturity – or hopefully not long afterwards – the individual needs to step out of dependency and into self-responsible authority as a creator.

What I’m suggesting is that the one who first composed the creation myth of Genesis was not doing it for the quasi-scientific purpose of explaining how the universe came into being. Obviously he or she was not an eye witness of the events described (humans don’t show up until day six), but neither is it necessary to assume that our storyteller was simply repeating what had been revealed by divine messenger. We can reasonably suppose that he was in full possession of his faculties, that she was conscious of what she was doing. That leaves us with a decision between deliberate deception (but only if we must take the story literally) and artistic insight into the creative process. I’m going with the latter.creative-authority-flowWe need to be reminded (and then double-check the text for ourselves) that according to our myth the primordial waters is the one thing God did not create. (This insight resonates with the theory of Thales of Miletus, in ancient Greece, who was likely a contemporary of our storyteller.) The ‘formlessness and emptiness’ that preexists creation can be found in many myths worldwide, and it is generally taken as a metaphor of chaos – not the mixed-up confusion of random things, but rather the formless vibration of energy, analogous to the quantum reality of contemporary physics.

This indeterminate potentiality of chaos rises into pattern and form in its aspect as the ground of existence, in energy manifesting as this or that, crystallized in the latticework of matter, order, and meaning. But chaos is also a solvent into which these same patterns and forms will eventually disintegrate, and this is its aspect as the abyss of extinction. As ground, chaos is generativity and fullness; as abyss it is dissipation and emptiness. Should we seek security from its abyssal aspect behind our walls and defenses, the devastating outcome will be that we lose access to our grounding mystery as well. In other words, creative authority (as well as artistic creativity) requires that we stay open to chaos and learn to trust the process.

Our goal and ongoing task in any case is to live a life of purpose, which means living intentionally and taking responsibility for our choices. (It should be obvious how different this notion of purpose is from the evangelical Christian idea of a ‘purpose-driven life’, where a believer must surrender his or her will to the perfect plan of god.) And this is where three related terms come into the picture, which have not only an impressive representation in the Bible but are also found throughout the mythologies of ancient cultures: breath, voice, and word.

Word

These three terms, in fact, name what we might think of as the three ‘moves’ in world creation – remembering that the construction of meaning is the end product of this creative process. It will help if we start with the product (the world-construct) and work in reverse along this sequence of moves. Word refers to speech and to the instrument of language itself, as the medium that enables the mind to facilitate the translation of experience into meaning. Pure (immediate) experience is meaningless until the logical units and categories of thought that filter, arrange, and frame it into significance are imposed.

Our worlds are constructs of language – conventions, narratives, mental models – that we must continually validate by spinning the scripts that keep them suspended in our imaginations. If we should lose track of the script, as in amnesia where the neural circuitry supporting it gets bumped off-line and we forget who we are, we find ourselves in a very unpleasant place – or rather, we can’t find ourselves without a context, and that’s precisely the point. This language-dependent nature of our world is a more recent rediscovery that inspired the postmodern school of constructivism.

Voice

But it’s not merely words on a page that keep our worlds suspended, but the stories we tell ourselves and others. That’s why ‘voice’ and not ‘text’ stands upstream from ‘word’. Voice is the sounding instrument that produces the word, but it cannot be reduced to the mere sound of words. Indeed, whereas words are public and shared packets of information, a voice is exquisitely individual and unique. In the Indian psychosomatic chakra system, the throat chakra is the center of personal power and self-expression. This is not about hitching onto someone else’s meaning or borrowing another’s truth, but giving ‘voice’ to one’s own perspective and will.

It’s important to realize that in the Genesis myth God didn’t merely do or say something a long time ago, but is depicted (in the act of storytelling) as speaking forth, vocalizing, and articulating the structure of reality in this very moment. The cosmic order comes into being and holds together by virtue of God’s active and sustained speech; the world is words sustained in the act of speech.

Breath

Our third and final move upstream in the creative process brings us to the very edge of chaos, to the threshold where the urgency of life in each breath that our body requires is channeled through the voice and into the words that construct our world. In ancient languages, the often refined idea of spirit (Hebrew ruach, Sanskrit prāna, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus) has etymological roots in this very body-centered power of the breath to animate, inspire, pacify, and empower. Breath keeps the body alive while it serves our higher aspirations for meaning – in which, strictly speaking, the body has no interest whatsoever.

A more embodied notion of spirit as breath serves additionally to keep it from leaving the body for heavenly, metaphysical, or esoteric abstractions, where it has been coined by religious orthodoxies and secret societies, time and again, into something they can claim exclusively for themselves. Even a traditional reading of the Genesis myth will tend to identify the spirit that was hovering over the surface of primordial waters with a deity who is separate and far superior to what we are. In such cases the story is enervated and its revolutionary insight into our nature as world creators is locked away.

Let’s not forget, however, that worlds are constructs of meaning; that meaning is a production of words; that words are sound-bytes of speech; that the speaking voice is a channel of the breath; and that breathing is our grace between life and death.

“In the beginning” is always now.

 

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Myth and the Matrix of Meaning

Homo mythicus – I know it’s not a word, but perhaps it should be. Human beings are myth-makers.

We create meaning by telling stories. Personal anecdotes and nursery rhymes, factual reports and fairy tales, thin excuses and passionate confessions, epic histories and heroic adventures, religious creeds and scientific theories – these are just a few of the types of stories we tell. Identity itself (ego), that prize and protected treasure of contemporary individualism, is constructed out of countless storylines.

The meaning of life is what we make of it. Your personal myth is based on some very early stories your family told you, stories that carry assumptions about the way things are, where you belong, and what’s important in life. Such core beliefs are sown into the very fabric of your sense of self. You no longer question them – if you ever did – simply because they condition and qualify your grasp on reality at the subconscious level.

Matrix_1But our stories don’t simply arise spontaneously out of the creative imagination. It’s not like we got bored one day ten thousand years ago and decided to pass time spinning yarns by the campfire.

In other words, humans don’t tell stories because we have nothing else to do. Stories are how we orient ourselves in the world, and are what our worlds are made of. They carry the rhythms of our bodies and brains into the rhymes and reasons that make life meaningful.

In this blog post I want to offer up the idea that meaning itself is constructed upon a matrix of primary human concerns. If our stories are to mean something, they must take into account and work out an interpretation of life with respect to these primary concerns – and just these four.

Security. Human newborns are defenseless, vulnerable and dependent. One way that evolution accommodated our species was to get us delivered “prematurely” and prolong our development over the course of twenty years or so. During this time the operating system and local applications of our culture get downloaded into our brains. In varying degrees depending on our circumstances and early parenting, each of us emerges from childhood with a sense of security – that there is enough of what we need to live and grow.

Suffering. It’s also a fact of our existence that we don’t always get what we need to live and grow. Reality is not perfectly safe, and no security arrangement in life is permanent. This was the Buddha’s insight: Life is suffering. In the end you will lose your life, and you will lose much else along the way. Hanging on and gripping down only sets you up for anxiety, frustration and disappointment – in a word, for more suffering. The reality of suffering – chronic pain, sudden loss, heartbreak and loneliness – is something we cannot escape, though we do our best to medicate, minimize or distract ourselves from it.

Freedom. Another primary concern of humans is a function of our ability to take control (to a limited extent) of our bodies and the natural environment. The acquisition of skills and invention of various technologies has opened the scope of our freedom at an accelerating pace over the millenniums. Mastery at one level creates opportunities higher up – such is the calculus of human progress. Dependency at an early age gives way to autonomy as we grow up, taking more of life into our own control and putting more options at our disposal. A meaningful life is one you must choose – now more than ever before.

Fate. But there are limits, and every choice has its consequences. Whereas much about our world is made up and open to revision, the reality of life places constraints around our talents, strengths and possibilities. Genetic temperament deals us the cards and personal character plays them out, over time reducing the different combinations and alternate endings we might choose. And then there’s the fact that no one gets out of here alive. Probably much more than we know or can admit, the denial, avoidance and postponement of death drives much of what we do.

As the above diagram suggests, these four primary human concerns stand in relationships of paradox and tension. Specifically, security and suffering are really the polar opposites of a shared continuum, while freedom and fate are similarly related. None of the concerns can be properly understood and appreciated in any absolute sense. At this very moment, as you compose your personal myth of meaning, you are somewhere between security and suffering, freedom and fate. The patterns you weave are anchored on these four primary human concerns.

Matrix_2The matrix of meaning also includes what I’ll call four universal motifs, which show up everywhere in the stories we tell. A motif is a narrative theme; we might think of them as the major storylines that we weave together into our worlds. They also stand as pairs in creative tension.

Play. The meaning of your life is produced out of wonder, spontaneity, imagination and make-believe. Reality, very simply, is; but a world is something you put on – as in “putting on” a play. When you were a young child, role-play and pretending, dress-up and games were how you began to experiment with meaning-making. And of course, the costumes and toys you played with were also “propaganda devices” in your early socialization, by means of which gender instruction and class values were installed in your psyche.

Work. Eventually you needed to learn the importance of effort, determination and sacrifice in pursuit of certain outcomes and extrinsic rewards. This second motif shares the continuum with play, allowing for the possibility that your work might also be something in which you find creative enjoyment. It isn’t always the case, however. For many of us, work is simply what’s required to pay the utilities and put food on the table. Perhaps the most obvious difference between work and play is that play without purpose is infinitely entertaining, while work without purpose is one of the deepest hells we can know.

Love. Sex, intimacy, companionship and care – what would life be without these vibrant frequencies of human connection? Your earliest experience of love was likely in a nursing embrace, which may be why we have a difficult time distinguishing between feeling loved and feeling full, and why some of us eat when we’re lonely or feel unloved. The relative position of this motif to freedom and suffering in the matrix confirms what we eventually find out on our own: While love requires freedom, it moves us into attachments that eventually bring suffering.

War. You won’t find a culture anywhere on earth that doesn’t tell stories of adversarial relationships, interpersonal conflict, tribal conquest and political revolution. “Love and War” are certainly two motifs that play well together in the movies, probably with roots in our animal prehistory when males fought for sexual access to females. (What prehistory? you will ask.) As long as the primary concern of security is wrapped up in territory, resources and possessions, the borderland menace of invaders and thieves will keep the war motif strong in our minds. There’s also something about adversity that, as we say, builds character.

Matrix_3That’s the matrix of meaning: Four primary human concerns and four perennial narrative motifs are the “stuff” of which all stories are made. As the temperament, life circumstances, and developmental career of each person is unique, the pattern of meaning that we can call one’s personal myth (along with its corresponding world) will be individualized to that extent.

The matrix reminds us that our stories and the meaning we construct out of them are serious business. They are not supposed to distract us from the responsibility of making our lives count for something, and they shouldn’t divert our thoughtful reflection away from the challenges we face. The stories we tell at the individual, interpersonal, tribal and cultural levels will be meaningful in the degree that they assist us in spinning webs we can live in, webs that connect us in relevant ways to each other and to our home planet.

Above all else, our stories, worlds, and webs of meaning need to lift us out and provide a way back into the present mystery of reality.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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The Story of Truth

At this holiday season we have another chance to take a deeper look into story. What is it exactly, this peculiar arrangement of words that conjures up images in our minds, sweeps us away into other times and places, to places that never were nor likely will ever be?

Take the story of The Nativity, for example. It is the founding narrative of one of the two competing traditions behind our present-day Christmas holiday. Where is the truth in this story – which is really two distinct stories told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

Nativity

Matthew’s version includes a heavenly star and oriental court astrologers who visit Mary and Jesus at their Bethlehem home address. There’s the maniacal and jealous King Herod who orders all males under two years old murdered, in his effort to eliminate this contender to the throne. Joseph takes Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem and eventually to Egypt until wicked King Herod dies. When the coast is clear, the First Family moves to Nazareth where Jesus will spend his youth.

Luke’s version has Joseph taking his pregnant wife, Mary, from Nazareth to his ancestral home town of Bethlehem for tax enrollment. Upon arriving the couple discovers that every hotel room is booked, and thus is forced to stay the night in an animal shack behind the inn. There Mary goes into labor and delivers Jesus. Meanwhile, an angelic choir announces to shepherds in their fields that a savior has been born in Bethlehem. They go with haste and find the First Family in the stable, just as foretold.

There are some obvious inconsistencies between these two Nativity stories – maybe you caught them.

Joseph and Mary begin in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem in Luke’s version, whereas they end up there after starting in Bethlehem in Matthew’s. Luke’s shepherds visit Jesus in an animal stable, while Matthew’s astrologers find him in a “house.” Obviously one has to be right. If you had been there, what would you have seen with your own eyes?

Before you answer, let’s note that Luke’s shepherds are probably hired hands or day laborers, down in the socioeconomic mucky bottom. They aren’t businessmen, artisans or merchants. They represent the class just barely inside the definition of class, and definitely outside of having any political clout.

Matthew’s court astrologers, on the other hand, are pretty high up on the social ladder. They may be outsiders but they come with wealth and power. Still they leave their country and kingdom in search of the “king of the Jews,” and when they find him they lay their offerings at his feet.

So did it happen just that way? But which way?

In their effort to merge these different storylines into a single coherent narrative, commentators have suggested that Matthew’s events actually took place after Luke’s – maybe as many as two years later. That accounts for Herod’s massacre of two-year-old males and gives the First Family time to get from the stable into a bona fide residence. The astrologers and shepherds never met each other, which means that our crowded manger scenes on postcards and storybooks are an historical inaccuracy.

But it’s not necessary to merge these two narratives. They are inconsistent only if your assumption is that the truth is somehow outside the stories, in the facts of history and what must have “actually happened.”

This question of which Gospel Nativity story is true – and the question of truth in story generally – cannot be answered by jumping out of the story and looking for facts to back it up. Actually, this scramble for historical evidence and the sworn testimony of eye witnesses is a very late development. It became urgent and pressing once the spell was broken.

What spell? The spell that any great story puts on the mind of whomever is willing to “go under” its entrancing power. You can’t keep interrupting the narrative with ejaculations of “Did that really happen?” and “Is that literally how it went?” Follow the example of a young child: Once upon a time carries the imagination into another world – that is to say, into a different narrative construct from the one you’re in right now.

Don’t sweat it. You’re just leaving one spell for another. You’ll be back in no time at all. For now, simply relax, close your eyes and listen …

Luke’s Nativity introduces you to the start of a world revolution, where an insurgent savior is born to poverty. The good news (gospel) of his arrival is first announced to shepherds “living in the fields,” outside and away from the power-centers of wealth, politics and religion. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel – if you are patient enough for the whole story – continues to fill out this character who comes to level the playing field, to challenge the high and mighty, and pull the hopeless poor to their feet. Luke’s Jesus is the prince of a new kingdom, and you are invited in.

Matthew’s Nativity invites you to a revolution as well, but his messiah is fashioned on the model of Moses, the great liberator who saved his people from bondage in Egypt. In order to solidify this association, Matthew arranges for Jesus to be in Egypt (hiding from Herod) and be granted a safe exodus into the new “promised land” of Nazareth. Matthew’s story overall is about the world significance of this New Liberator, represented in a heavenly star high above and foreign magistrates from far away. Apparently no one alive “under heaven” is excluded from this very good news, not even you.

Coming back to the burning question, what can be said about the “truth” of these stories?

The Nativity stories are not true because they accurately relate how things actually went down. They were not composed as an effort to piece together evidence in a factually reliable report. We can safely make this generalization about all true stories. They are true to the degree they are successful in bringing about a transformation of consciousness, orienting the spell-bound audience to reality with a new set of values and expectations. If the story changes you, then it’s true.

But if it can’t change you, simply because you refuse to “go under” and get “caught up” in its alternative fantasy, then it’s “only a story” or “just a myth.” You might as well set it down and get on with your life, such as it is.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Timely and Random

 

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