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Beyond Ourselves

Every human society has a moral order it expects its members to uphold and obey. Evolution pushed us as a species into group sizes large enough where animal instincts were no longer sufficient guidance for this new and emotionally complicated situation, and we needed something “from above” to govern our behavior with each other.

While instinct is unconscious and compulsive, driving us to behave in certain predetermined ways, this higher government of rules, values, duties, and aims requires our thoughtful consideration, mutual agreement, and willing cooperation.

So whereas other species can live more or less spontaneously from their animal nature, humans, by virtue of the way sentient mind (or consciousness) bends back reflexively upon itself in self-conscious awareness, need a secondary system of codes to help us negotiate the challenges, opportunities, and obligations of social life.

In this post I will make an even more radical argument, proposing that our higher nature as spiritual animals – that is, as animals with a capacity for contemplative, creative, and transpersonal experiences – depends for its full realization on our successful passage through the moral order of our tribe. And obviously a successful passage will necessarily reflect how conservative, liberal, and enlightened this morality really is.

In its conservative aspect, morality anchors our emerging identity in the heritage of our people, with its traditions for gathering, celebrating, and maintaining community. In its liberal aspect, morality increasingly sets us free to choose and take responsibility for our own lives. And in its enlightened aspect, morality opens consciousness to the transpersonal realm where we understand ourselves (and each other) as belonging to a vast communion of life.

A telling symptom of our current moral crisis is the mutual condemnation of conservatives and liberals in their fight for control. But another symptom is far more ominous, and is to some extent a consequence of all that locked-horns animosity between those fighting to keep things the same and others who want them to change.

Distracted and exhausted by the debate, we can’t get over ourselves to thoughtfully consider where our moral development might otherwise lead us, if we could only lift our meditation to the bigger and longer view. Consequently our morality is not enlightened, and instead of inspiring better versions of ourselves, it is provoking our animal aggressions, driving us to destroy the very foundations of moral society upon which our fulfillment as a species depends.

Let’s rewind things a bit in order to better understand just how vulnerable we are as self-conscious individuals to the exploits and machinations of others who want to control us.

When we are infants and young children, our taller powers have the responsibility of teaching us, training us, shaping us, and installing in our mind the beliefs that will form our sense of self and the world around us.

This emerging ego (Latin for “I”) has no substance of its own but is purely a construct of all these codes, restraints, social prompts, and subjective feelings, spun together in a conspiracy of personal identity.

Our tribe fashions this construct of identity by conditioning us to identify with particular roles, role plays, and staged settings where our interactions with others play out. Just one more step beyond all these theater stages of social life brings us to the outer horizon of our personal world.

This is not just another name for objective reality, for our personal world is just as imaginary (made up and projected outward) as the identity we have taken on. “Who I am” (ego) and “where I belong” (world) are correlates of each other, and neither can be understood without reference to the other.

An important dynamic of this correlation of ego and world is tethered to the problem of security. When we feel insecure, we tend to make our world smaller by contracting its horizon to a more manageable size. By identifying with a smaller range of “me, mine, and other people like me,” we reduce our exposure to what might harm us.

Anxious egos inhabit small worlds, and the more insecure we feel, the more exclusive and isolating our world must become.

But with every successive collapse of our world horizon, we relinquish as well whatever influence we had in those larger realms of communion. Eventually our insecurity can motivate us to shrink our world so small and to contract so far into self-isolation – all in the hopes of keeping ourselves safe, mind you – that we feel utterly powerless and alone.

This happens to be the tactic of authoritarian demagogues like president Donald Trump, who exploit our ego insecurity by painting the world around us as dangerous and threatening, exhorting us to shrink our horizon of identity to the point where we are finally powerless to resist but can only watch as our resources, our rights, our freedoms, and our dignity get taken away.

A revolutionary discovery that signals our spiritual awakening, but which frequently comes as an unsettling shock of disillusionment, is when we see this identity construction of ego-and-world for what it is. Whether it’s our corrosive anxiety that drives us to the edge of revelation, or rather as a function of a positive ego strength that has prepared us to transcend ourselves for a larger and more inclusive experience, the illusion of personal identity begins to lose its enchantment.

If we are not, really, the roles we play and the masks we wear; if our in-group loyalties and shared convictions are social constructions (perhaps cultural hallucinations) and lack any basis in reality, then what’s left? Is this the “nothing matters” of nihilism that our orthodoxies warn us against?

The answer to the question of what’s left after the spell of ego-and-world is broken is … everything! When the construct that separates consciousness into self-consciousness, and further isolates self-consciousness into smaller and more exclusive identities – when this is released and transcended, we can finally see that we are not separate and alone after all.

Rooted again in the grounding mystery of life – but let’s remember that our separation was only a delusional episode – we can now clearly see, lovingly connect, and creatively act with the whole universe in mind.

 

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The Arc of Spiritual Evolution

Times like these challenge us to examine the path that got us here, orient ourselves in the current situation, and consider our possible futures ahead. Racial tension, police brutality, the erosion of democracy, the degradation of our planet, the widening divide between rich and poor, and, just now, a coronavirus pandemic that is shaking the world economies to their foundations – all of it is conspiring in a perfect storm of apocalyptic proportions.

Alarmists and dooms-day prophets want us to believe that these are the End Times, and they are urging everyone to change their ways and get on the right side.

Half of what they are saying is correct: If we don’t change our ways, things are likely to only get worse and the world as we know it will be destroyed. Our lack of understanding when it comes to the nature and dynamics of living systems has prevented us from seeing how each of those vectors mentioned above is not merely correlated with the others, but is itself a symptom of the same underlying pathology.

Where I think they have it wrong, however, is in their prognostication of these “last days” as marking the terminal end of history and our human residence on Earth. True enough, the current upheaval is perhaps unprecedented in the history of our species, in being disruptive (breaking the routines and structures of daily life), protracted (still unfolding with no definite end in sight), and chaotic (the ‘perfect storm’ outside our control) – and all at once. With all of that going on, it’s easy to conclude that its conclusion will be hopeless and final.

When you feel powerless to do anything about the situation you’re in, giving up is the easiest thing to do.

I don’t want to suggest that our times aren’t so bad, that we just need to look on the bright side of things. They are bad. Many people are suffering and dying, and our planet itself is careening through seismic and systemic shifts that are pushing entire species into extinction almost daily. If ‘bad’ means painful, harmful, difficult, and serious, then these times are bad – maybe worse than they’ve ever been.

So am I just whistling in the dark?

I’m not ready to give up just yet because of one variable in particular, one factor in play that can make the difference between a final catastrophe and a breakthrough to something new – not just in terms of a unique arrangement of catastrophic leftovers, but as a next stage in our evolution as a species. This creative element is the human spirit.

And so, in what follows I want to dig deeper and reach higher into our spiritual intelligence and imagine a possible future for us, together.

When I speak of the human spirit, I don’t mean something that is separate from our animal nature, like a metaphysical soul riding inside our mortal body. Rather, I mean to identify an evolved type of intelligence (SQ) that has emerged with our developing brain and nervous system over the millenniums of hominid evolution, along with its construction of symbol systems that are the foundation of our world cultures and their webs of meaning.

Our spiritual intelligence gives us a way of engaging with the environment, each other, and ourselves that really does set humans apart from the rest of Earth’s species. And yet, one of its astonishing virtues is in how it enables us to understand the essential interdependence of life, the unity of existence, and our communion with all things. My diagram identifies a four-dimensional vision that our spiritual intelligence makes possible.

I will suggest that a successful transit through the disruptive, protracted, and chaotic change of these times requires a full activation of the human spirit; and further, that this moment is a decisive phase in the spiritual awakening of our species.

The terms of this vision – faith, love, purpose, and hope – are familiar to us. Nevertheless, or maybe because that is so, we will have to carefully define these terms and refresh their meaning. Their overuse and abuse in religion, business, and everyday life makes it necessary, every now and then, to trace them back to their metaphorical roots.

Deeper Faith

In the West, faith is understood as a willingness to believe something that lacks evidence or seems to contradict commonsense logic. “You’ve got to have faith” has come to mean “just believe it anyway” – that something is true or will come to pass, even (or especially) if nothing presently substantiates your belief. Under this definition, faith has frequently been used as encouragement to suspend or set aside thoughtful consideration and dismiss all evidence to the contrary.

In its deeper history, however, faith has nothing directly to do with beliefs. Essentially faith is trust, a letting-go or release of our ego identity to the deeper support and generative source of being, represented in religion by the metaphor of God. From ego (the separate center of “I”) we drop into the contemplative experience of embodied mind, and from there into an open space of boundless presence.

The deeper we go, the less ego there is, and the more immediate our awareness of resting in the present mystery of Being itself.

Wider Love

When faith deepens to the point where no separate “I” remains, our communion with everything else as manifestations of the same essential reality awakens in us a compassionate regard for these others “as myself.” With the judgments and contractions of ego identity gradually relaxed and released, our own boundary opens ever wider to include more and more of what had earlier been perceived as “not me” or even “against me.” Another way of phrasing this is to say that the boundary which had formerly separated our identity from others now becomes a threshold for compassionate engagement.

Our current crisis is providing us an opportunity to reverse ego’s inclination to contract and withdraw where we seek smaller zones of safety and control, and instead to transcend those security limits in the interest of reaching out to, connecting with, and including the other.

Higher Purpose

The idea of purpose and having a purpose is used in religion as a way of personalizing “god’s plan” for one’s life. According to this conception, god is in control of everything and has predetermined (predestined according to Calvinist doctrine) all things for his glory. Our lives will make more sense, work better, and end up in the right place as we are willing to commit ourselves to god’s plan and purpose for us.

But because theistic religion is focused on the identity and destiny of individual believers – that is to say, on ego – the impulse to contract inside smaller and safer identities where our insecurity can be better managed (or so we believe) tends to hyper-individualize this notion of purpose in theism and the societies it has influenced.

As I’m using the term here, higher purpose is not another name for “god’s plan and purpose for my life.” Higher denotes larger horizons of space and time, and purpose is more about intention than objective. In other words, it’s more about living on purpose than achieving goals or accomplishing a mission. A wider love by definition includes more, and as we are enabled by a deeper faith to transcend our separate identity for a larger communion, our investment of caring attention and mindful behavior (i.e., intention) shifts into that higher and larger – transpersonal – field of concerns.

Longer Hope

Our time horizon, referring to how deep into the past and far into the future the awareness of our present situation extends, is necessarily as small as our ego insecurity will allow. When it’s “all about me,” and this “me” has contracted inside an identity that is separatist, defensive, and insatiably discontent, our time horizon is very small indeed. We don’t identify ourselves with a family, a people, a species, or with a larger community of life.

Our relevant past goes back only as far as we can remember, and only to those events and experiences that have shaped our individual (ego) sense of self. And as the retrospectus of our life is what sets the forward range of our life’s prospectus, we simply cannot see beyond our own death into the longer destinies of our family, our people, our species, and of life on Earth.

It should be clear by now that hope is not wishful thinking, a kind of closing the eyes and “hoping for the best.”

Instead, as we consider our possible futures from the elevation of a transpersonal higher purpose, taking in the full communion of our life with others and grounded faithfully in the present mystery of reality, hope is what enables us to envision a future that includes us all, one that will be an inheritance of wellbeing for future generations.


This critical moment in human history and in the history of our planet has placed us at a choice point. On one side is the option of persisting in our current way of life, continuing to push our agendas and promote our beliefs. But let’s not forget: this is precisely the path that’s brought us to this point.

On the other side is the option of breaking through and moving beyond our current mindset, into a new way of being together. When the routines and structures of daily life break down, when the stress of change seems unrelenting, and when it’s no longer possible to simply return to the world as it was, transformation is our way through.

 

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Dropping Into Reality

In More Than You Think I offered a theory that regards mind as more than what’s going on inside your head. Western culture, particularly, has tended to equate consciousness (or spirit) with mind, mind with the brain, and the brain with the body as the central ganglion of its physical nervous system.

Granting such exclusive privilege to the brain – what I call the cephalic node of consciousness or logical mind – reveals our preference in the West for words, labels, explanations and the push-off from reality they afford us.

In that previous post I also implicated the logical mind as where your self-world construct of identity is managed. Your separate center of self-conscious identity, or ego, does not belong to your essential nature but had to be constructed in the social laboratory of your tribe. By shaping you into “one of us,” your identity came to both reflect and carry the interests, values, beliefs, and anxieties of the group that held your membership.

I don’t treat this gradual separation of identity as a tragic accident or a regretful “fall from paradise” that must somehow be escaped or undone. Ego formation is part of healthy human development. Regarding yourself as a unique and separate center of personal identity, while not the culmination of this path, is a necessary precondition for the true fulfillment of your nature as a human being.

Problems arise and pathology sets in when you get stuck on yourself and trapped inside your logical mind. Then your separation turns into alienation and estrangement, where you are unable to touch the present mystery of reality and wake up to the truth of what you are.

It’s fair to say that all of our chronic suffering as a species, as well as the suffering of other life-forms we are causing, is a consequence of this ego pathology. What I call the “pernicious divisions” of human from nature, of self from other, and of body from soul are behind every crisis we face today. Each of these pairs is ideally a creative polarity, but our profound insecurity has motivated us instead to over-focus on one pole (i.e., human, self, and body) as we exploit or neglect the other (nature, other, and soul).

We might continue to treat this in the abstract, or else we can make it experiential. Your logical mind, centered as it is on your ego and dedicated to defending your world, would prefer to keep things safely boxed up in language. You don’t realize how much of the meaning constructed around you has been arranged as a defense against the breakthrough of mystery, defined and dismissed by your logical mind as chaos, the not-yet-known, or just plain nonsense.

If you happen to be particularly wary of what’s outside or underneath the floorboards of your meaning-full world, the beliefs you hold actually have a hold on your mind, holding it captive (like a convict) inside of fixed and absolute judgments.

This is where you suffer. These convictions not only separate you from the present mystery of reality, they also lock you away from the wellspring of eternal (i.e., timeless) life which is always just beyond belief. All of our chronic unhappiness as humans is generated out of this separation consciousness and the various ways we try to manage or mask its symptoms.

Staying inside your logical mind allows you to make up any excuse or rationalization you need in order to feel better about things. But in that small closed space there is no inner peace, no creative freedom, and no genuine wellbeing – and these are what you truly long for.

If you will, right now as you engage this meditation, just imagine your logical mind and its self-world construct as a big sphere enclosing your head – kind of like those cartoon space helmets you remember from The Jetsons. In my diagram I have placed the image of an elevator shaft with doors opening at the “head floor” and your ego looking out. This is where you have a clear and separate sense of self, inside a habitation of stories that is your world, with everything around you just as clearly “not me.”

Now remember, there’s nothing wrong with having a unique identity and managing a personal world; this is a critical achievement of your development and evolution as a human being. But the truth is that all of this is not real: your ego and its world are nothing more than narrative constructs made up of thoughts, words, stories and beliefs – all generated by your logical mind. Life is more or less meaningful up here, but its meaning is something you are putting on, like a play.

One day it all feels very meaningful, and the next not so much or not at all. The difference from one day to the next is a matter of what stories you are telling yourself and how much you believe them – or how desperately you need them to be true.

For now, though, just let the elevator doors close. Pull your attention away from all of that and allow consciousness to descend into your heart (cardiac node) where your sympathic mind resides. When the doors open again, there is no ego: no separate self, no personal world, no elaborate construct of stories. Even meaning has been left behind.

What you find instead is a web of interdependence connecting you to everything else, and everything all together as One. As best you can, try not to “think” about your experience, since that will only bring awareness back up into your logical mind.

This experience of communion is about coming back to your senses and dropping into reality – out of your stories and into the present mystery of being alive. This is where you understand, not just conceptually but experientially understand, that everything is connected and nothing stands utterly alone from the rest.

All is One, and you are a part of what’s going on.

If we use the label “modern” to name the collective mindset where separation consciousness is in control and the logical mind has constructed a meaningful world for itself, then we can appreciate how this liberative experience of releasing, descending, and communing with reality is necessarily a “post-modern” possibility and wouldn’t have been available to our ancestors of a “pre-ego” age.

In other words, dropping into reality presupposes a separate center (ego) from which the drop can be made.

But let’s not stop there. Let the elevator doors close again, and this time allow consciousness to drop past the web of communion and the All-that-is-One, into the deep presence of being here and now. This is the enteric (gut) node of your intuitive mind. The grounding mystery of your existence provides no place for words or even thoughts to stick. Your experience is ineffable: indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless. 

Rest here for a while. Find refreshment in the wellspring of this present mystery, in the mystery of presence. When you take the elevator back up into the business of managing a world and living your life, you will be free to live with a higher purpose in mind.

 

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The Heart and Hope of Democracy

Let’s begin this meditation on the heart and hope of democracy with you identifying yourself with either the Blue or Red sphere in the diagram above. Then let’s pretend that all of your life you’ve been training to be the best Blue or Red you can be. From an early age your tribe was actively shaping and colorizing you, giving you careful instructions, applying timely discipline, and downloading all the necessary codes that would eventually get you to the point where, today, you don’t regard Blue or Red as one option among two (or many) but as who you are.

Beyond that, Blue or Red is also how you see the world around you. The meaning of things and the issues that grab your attention hold a strong correspondence to the perceptual filter of your identity. Blue or Red concerns just feel more important to you, and you make friends more easily with other Blues or Reds. Having the same values and beliefs about the world helps your conversations stay in tracks that are familiar and predictable.

If you are Blue, then those Reds are way off base. If you’re Red, then those Blues have no clue what’s going on.

Being sure of your identity as Blue or Red, you are vigilant to keep reddish or bluish tendencies in check. In fact, quite often it’s easier to determine where you stand on something by checking out the other color and then taking the opposite position. If your tribe has done its job and you remain strong in your convictions, the separation between you might as well be another feature of reality itself. You are Blue or you are Red, and they are way over there, outsiders to the one and true way of being in the world.

Democracy will always be challenged by the duality of opposites.

Blues and Reds might relish the fantasy of living out their days in a land exclusively Blue or Red, where everyone believes and behaves the same way – the right way, their way. But such a fantasy amounts to nothing more than what Joseph Campbell called a “utopiate”: a utopia or “no place” in the imagined future that sedates the mind like opium and keeps consciousness, now in the words of Pink Floyd, “comfortably numb.”

As long as Blues and Reds see color as essential to the nature of what and who they are, ideology will continue to be mistaken for reality.

Indeed, living in a fantasy is not far from a true description of what’s going on for you as a Blue or Red. A better word perhaps might be trance, seeing as how your identity, beliefs, values and way of life were “put on you” starting at a very early age, like someone put under a spell by a hypnotist. We could justifiably call this entranced state “separation consciousness,” since its principal effect is in convincing you that you and that Red or Blue over there are entirely separate and have absolutely nothing in common.

Now, I’m not suggesting that who you are and what you believe are meaningless, for clearly they mean everything to you.

However, if we pause to consider how the meaning of anything is not found in the thing itself – Where exactly is the meaning of a flower or a star? – but is rather put on it by our mind, usually in agreement with other minds, then the notion of meaning as a spell and belief as a kind of trance might start to make more sense.

As long as Blues honor and respect only other Blues and bluish values, and as long as Reds honor and respect only other Reds and reddish values, democracy doesn’t stand a chance.

We need to arrive at a place – which is no utopia but actually a step closer to reality – where Blues and Reds can listen to each other, ask questions that seek understanding, confirm this understanding by paraphrasing it back to the owner, and then join the work of constructing a world where they can coexist in peace, but even more where they can thrive in mutual honor and respect.

According to the dictionary, being worthy of honor and respect is the definition of ‘dignity’. The heart of a healthy and vibrant democracy lies in the dignity individuals recognize in each other. If we ask where this worth resides or attaches itself, it can’t be with those socially conditioned, culturally relative, autobiographical factors that define your identity as a Blue or Red.

When we assign dignity to anything at this more superficial level, we end up amplifying things that separate individuals rather than connect them.

For a healthy democracy, dignity must be acknowledged as attaching to human nature itself. Underneath all of that overlay of personal identity and far below the trance-state where Blues and Reds contend for supremacy, you are a living, sentient, and self-conscious human being. Every human being is worthy of honor and respect, regardless of race, gender, nationality, ideology, socioeconomic status, and even moral character.

If you are a human being that happens to be Blue or Red, your humanity makes you equal with everyone else. That Red or Blue over there is not your enemy but your potential partner in dialogue, referring to that disciplined process described earlier where we listen to each other, ask questions to gain a better understanding, confirm our understanding by paraphrasing each other’s perspective, and then engage in the work of constructing a world where we can live and flourish together.

When we can do this, when Blues and Reds can become partners in a process rather than enemies across an ideological divide, the trance of separation consciousness will drop from our minds like a veil. This revelation is what is meant by “awakening,” as your spiritual intelligence sees through the illusion of separateness (and of identity as well) and becomes aware of, or wakes up to, the unity of all things.

As the hope of democracy, genuine community is characterized by unity consciousness.

But community isn’t only about a change in awareness. If All is One, as unity consciousness bears witness, then there is no ‘outside’ and therefore no ‘outsiders’. This ethic of radical inclusion is the flowering manifestation of that deep realization in the heart of democracy, of each person’s dignity as a human being. At the very least it means there are absolute limits to what Blues and Reds can do to each other.

It also means that everyone, of whatever color, needs an invitation to the table if democracy is to work.

Finally, a spiritually awakened community that is radically inclusive will be thoroughly humane. In the English language our word ‘human’ was originally spelled with an ‘e’, but over time it bifurcated into ‘human’ which frequently means ‘only human’ (i.e., weak and fallible), and ‘humane’ which describes the tender virtues of grace, compassion, charity, forgiveness, and the like.

As a mark of genuine community, the commitment to a shared life that is thoroughly humane is absolutely critical to the health and longevity of democracy.

So if you are Blue or Red, remember that this not what you are most basically. The construction of your identity as Blue or Red doesn’t have to make every other color a threat and enemy. Hold your beliefs but don’t let them take your mind hostage. As best you can, try to see through the veil of who you are and of the world as you presently conceive it, to what is really real.

The heart of democracy is inside every Blue and Red, and its hope is a world that includes us all.

 

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Breaking Free

At this very moment your nervous system is idling at a frequency that registers your confidence in reality as provident to your basic needs to live, to belong, and to be loved. It isn’t something you have to make a decision over or even think very much about.

As far as thinking is concerned, it is preconscious, serving as the filter which determines much of what gets your attention and holds your interest.

The history of this, what we might call your existential confidence or trust in reality, reaches all the way back to the time you were in your mother’s womb, through your birth experience, and into the first days and weeks of your life as an infant. Even though your existence wasn’t absolutely secure in an objective sense, your internal feeling of being supported and cared for allowed your nervous system to relax – for the most part.

But you know what? Your taller powers weren’t perfect, and they couldn’t show up promptly every time your needs announced themselves. The cumulative effect of delays, shortfalls, mistakes, and oversights on their part caused your nervous system to become a bit more vigilant and reactive. If gross neglect, abuse, and general bad parenting were also factors, the consequence on your nervous system was that much more severe.

In addition to decreasing your tolerance threshold, this external insecurity motivated you to reach out a little sooner, grip down a little harder, and hold on a little longer to whatever could make you feel secure.

In this way, insecurity generated attachment, which in turn served to pacify the dis-ease in your nervous system.

Attachment refers both to an emotional-behavioral strategy that seeks to resolve internal insecurity and to the external object used to mediate this resolution – what I call a pacifier. A pacifier is what you can’t feel secure without, but which is inherently incapable of satisfying your deeper needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

We’ve switched to the present tense to make the point that although your demand for pacifiers was established very early, throughout your life and still today you turn to certain things – objects and people, food and drink, ideas and beliefs – to help you calm down and feel less anxious.

Over time all these various pacifiers got incorporated into your developing sense of identity by a process known as entanglement. Your craving for a pacifier wasn’t optional, nor were you free to refuse its sedative effect. You can think of attachment as the combined strategy-and-fixation on some specific pacifier, while entanglement hooks and ties the attachment object into your very sense of self.

You become convinced that you can’t be happy without the pacifier, that you cannot function in its absence, and that without it you might even die.

As depicted in the diagram above, attachment ramifies (or branches out) into the self-world construct of your identity, which in turn ratifies (or locks in) the pacifier as a critical piece to your life and its meaning. The construction of your world thus contains and is largely built around the things that help you feel secure and will hopefully satisfy your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

But is this world of yours and the identity supported inside it really real? That’s an important question, since every human construction of meaning is a mental artifact that may have little or no basis in reality. Your idea of a rose, for instance, is not itself the rose. One is a mental artifact and the other is an actual fact. In this case, your idea of a rose has a definite anchor in objective reality, but the idea itself is only in your mind.

Some mental artifacts have no anchor in actual fact, such as religion’s concept of god. This doesn’t necessarily falsify the construct, since many such concepts are acknowledged as metaphors of experiences that elude objective representation. They may not represent real facts, but they are nevertheless reality-oriented in the way they reveal, express, or clarify an experience of reality.

If the insecurity, attachment, and entanglement are strong enough, your self-and-world construct might be profoundly delusional, making it impossible for you to discriminate between what you believe and what is real. The delusion thus serves to justify (or make right) your entanglement by providing you with all the reasons you need to defend and promote it on others.

It is under the spell of delusion that humans have wreaked all kinds of destruction, terror, and death on each other throughout our history.

In my diagram I have depicted your (partly delusional) worldview as a three-dimensional sphere enclosing black and white blocks. The sphere itself represents the more-or-less coherent collection of ideas that carries your current understanding of things, while the black and white blocks depict emotionally charged convictions, especially around your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

Ideas farther out toward the periphery are things you can negotiate, modify, and even abandon for better ones if necessary. But those convictions deeper in are nonnegotiable absolute claims that simply must be true for the whole thing to hold together.

If you are like most people, open dialogue around these claims is not only impossible, it’s simply not necessary since the one and only truth is already in your possession.

It is understandable if you find offense in my suggestion that you are living under the spell of delusion. Other people may be spellbound and out of touch with reality, but not you! I feel the same way. How I see things is the way things really are. There is no discrepancy between what I believe and what is real. There is no distortion in my representation, no self-serving bias in my personal worldview.

When you hear me say it, it sounds rather presumptuous, does it not? The truth is, our personal (and cultural) constructs of meaning will always fall short of reality, if only because they are mental artifacts and not really real. And given that each of us has arranged our world in some degree to compensate for the insecurity we once felt (and maybe still feel), our worldview not only falls short of reality but actually distorts it or ‘makes believe’ in the interest of helping us feel better.


The spiritual wisdom traditions are unanimous in their diagnosis of our present condition as enthralled by delusion, along with a deep-cutting ethical admonishment against our readiness to kill and die for things (our absolute truths) that are merely in our minds. Our only way forward according to them is by breaking the spell and waking up, which amounts to running the delusional process in reverse.

First, acknowledge that your ideas and beliefs are not (exactly) the way things really are. The idea of a rose is not the rose itself. This step is crucial in moving you out of delusion and into a position where you can begin to see the illusory nature of all mental constructs.

Next, perform a comprehensive inventory of your worldview and pay close attention to those beliefs that lack a strong reality orientation or empirical basis. Some beliefs only make sense because other beliefs are taken as true. But what makes those other beliefs true?

As you analyze your web of beliefs, it will become increasingly apparent that its persuasive character is more due to this cross-referencing bootstrap dynamic than to any foundation in direct experience. This is just another name for entanglement, only now you’re looking at it from above rather than from below.

Now try to isolate the lines of attachment that anchor your strongest beliefs. Keeping in mind that attachment is an emotional-behavioral strategy which fixates on specific pacifiers that you expect will make you feel more secure (or at least less insecure), persist in your effort to identify those pacifiers which you’re certain you can’t be happy or live without.

Trace those present-day pacifiers back to their primordial archetypes in your infancy and early childhood. Such a methodical deconstruction of attachment will begin to uncover the places where your nervous system was primed to be especially cautious, guarded, and tense.

Finally, become aware of these very places as vital touchpoints of your dependency on something greater. You have a need to live, to belong, and to be loved precisely because you are not a perfectly self-sufficient island unto yourself.

These needs are openings inviting your release to the present mystery of reality. Your essential emptiness is paradoxically the very ground of your being.

This is the truth that can set you free.

 

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Who Tells America’s Story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now for some application.

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

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

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

No more grey forevermore, Amen.

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

But that’s a story too, isn’t it?

What about this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Your Fact-Value Map

All you need to know is that there are just four kinds of people in the world. There are those who live as close as possible to what their own senses validate as real; we’ll call them Skeptics (from Greek skopeîn, to examine). They have their opposite in the Agnostics who keep reminding themselves how much, really, is unknown. Third are the Pessimists, who tend to focus on finding and solving problems. Fourth and opposite of them are the Optimists, with their lofty aspiration after ideals.

Okay, so there aren’t only four kinds of people in the world – there are lots more than just four. And yet, I will make a case in this post that each of us stands somewhere in the matrix of these four positions.

I call this matrix the fact-value map (or fact-and-value map). One axis of the matrix orients us to facts, and the other to values. As you probably know, the war of “facts” and “values” – or the hard sciences versus the humanities; e.g., engineering versus art – is one of the enduring scuffles that have shaped the Western mind in recent centuries.

But I don’t agree that they are warring opposites – unless we jump to extremes and define one against the other. Facts and values are not opposites in that sense; they are not diametrical, but rather complementary. Both are necessary elements in our construction of meaning.

Each alone is insufficient, like trying to build a house with boards but no nails, or with nails only and no boards.

So let me start again. All you need to know is that YOU stand somewhere between the obvious and the unknown, between problems and ideals. Where exactly you stand will determine what kind of house you build – that is to say, the particular construction style of the world you inhabit. Standing between these poles places you on a continuum: closer to their balancing center, farther on one side or the other, or perhaps out toward either extreme.

You do your best to blend the elements, like a careful alchemist or winemaker. But once in a while, whether precipitated by something going on around you or within, you can flip out of balance and become a dogmatic Skeptic or Agnostic, Pessimist or Optimist. So let’s pretend that, for right now at least, you are somewhere inside the fact-value map and not pegged at the extremes.

Now let my two-dimensional map tip through the third dimension, falling away from you to become a grid you can walk on. Step out and take your position at the intersection of the Fact and Value axes. (As a reminder, the Fact axis stretches between what is obvious to your sense experience and what is unknown – not merely beyond your senses but perhaps unknowable. Crossing through this is the Value axis, with problems to solve on one side and ideals to cherish on the other.)

From where you stand now, you can rotate 360° and look across the four quadrants of the matrix.

Next, plot two points on each axis, reflecting where you see the balance of its elements in your life and worldview at the present time. Less of one will place a point closer to you at the center; more of the other will put a second point farther in the other direction along the same axis. If you started with the Fact axis, do the same with the Value axis.

With four points plotted on the map, two somewhere on either side of center on each axis, your final instruction is to draw an ellipse that intersects all four points on the map. Most likely your ellipse will overlap all quadrants of the fact-value map, but skewed more or less to represent your unique balance among the four elements.

Let’s think of the elliptical boundary as your personal ‘world horizon’, inside of which are found the raw materials – the “boards and nails” – that you use to construct meaning and build your world.

In my illustration, an individual is standing at the intersection of the fact-value map with his world horizon skewed into the quadrant of “unknown problems.” This tells us that he is oriented in his life as an Agnostic Pessimist (or a Pessimistic Agnostic): his mind is open to what he doesn’t know, but he tends to regard it as something requiring his vigilance and preparedness since so much of what is unknown can be danger lurking in the shadow of the obvious.

This person is likely a plan-for-the-worst type who has learned that bracing for unknown problems is his best way of handling them once they present themselves. True enough, he can get overwhelmed at times by imagining troubles that aren’t really there and never materialize. But at least he’s ready for them, and that feels better than the prospect of being unpleasantly surprised and broad-sided.

Inside his world horizon you can see something lying on the ground that looks like a token with the letter ‘A’ imprinted on it. ‘A’ stands for archetype, which refers to a “first form” (Greek arche+typos) or primary image that represents many things – in this case all things, aka what’s going on or the way things really are.

I’m making a case that each of us lives inside a unique world horizon, and that we carry in our nervous system an imprint which, insofar as we entertain its image in our dreams and daytime reflections, is also a mental idea that symbolizes our world and what life is all about.

So, back to you.

As you survey your world horizon on the fact-value map, what token image serves to represent what it all means to you? Whether you happen to be an Agnostic Pessimist/Pessimistic Agnostic, a Pessimistic Skeptic/Skeptical Pessimist, a Skeptical Optimist/Optimistic Skeptic (that’s me, by the way), or an Optimistic Agnostic/Agnostic Optimist – there is something that summarizes the whole shebang for you in a single image, metaphor, or idea.

Maybe life is a beach, or rather a bitch. Perhaps an open door, or a brick wall. A bubbling spring, or a sucking drain. An undeserved blessing, or a deadly curse. What is it for you?

This is a good time to ask, “So what?”

Well, if each of us lives inside a world of our own making, and the world we happen to inhabit is actually making us sick with anxiety, tense with frustration, or stuck in depression, then we should be able to remodel our world into one that supports our happiness, fulfillment, and wellbeing.

Where to start? I suggest choosing a different archetype, tossing it into the quadrant you want to relocate to, and let it begin attracting and forming in you a new mindset. It will take time and consistent practice, but you can do it. Hell, look at what you’ve already done.

Once you can change your mind, a new world will come along shortly.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2019 in Philosophical Underpinnings

 

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Against Our Nature

In The Final Recession I described what I think is fundamentally at issue in our contemporary breakdown of democracy in America. It’s not the various issues that parties and individuals can’t seem to agree on, or that government has gotten too large for our own good.

Instead, I argued, the current crisis – brought to a focus in the inhumane treatment of Central American refugee families at our border with Mexico – is rooted in a loss of empathy.

Because we have lost rooting in the ground of our own human experience, we can neither understand nor identify with the suffering of others.

If we could identify with what they are experiencing, we would understand the desperation that compels these parents with their children to leave behind all they have in search of refuge. But we can’t – or at least some of us can’t. I am not Guatemalan, displaced from my home and responsible for children I cannot support. I have nothing in common with these ‘illegals’ who are threatening to ‘infest’ our country.

As I scan these check-boxes of identity, there’s nothing I can identify with. I’m White, not Latino. I’m wealthy by comparison, and not just to them but to the majority of people on Earth. And my identification as a Democrat or Republican orients my values on national concerns – my nation, not there’s.

I don’t know what’s going on in Guatemala, and it’s really none of my business. We’ve got worries of our own on this side of the border; we don’t need those aliens adding to our burden and fears.

When we feel insecure – and this applies universally to our species – we have a tendency to shrink the world in our mind to something we can manage. I don’t mean, of course, that we shrink reality, but rather the construct of meaning we have projected around ourselves, also called our ‘world’.

At the center of every world is an ego, an “I” who like a spider is busy spinning, monitoring, and repairing its web as necessary. This means that there are as many worlds as egos, and each of us is at the center of our own.

Identity, therefore, is a function of inhabiting a world and possessing a self. ‘Who I am’ is correlated to the various social categories that define me, to the groups that hold my membership, such as the White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) distinctions mentioned earlier and illustrated in my diagram.

With the exception of the category ‘White’, these are predominantly cultural inventions and exist only in our minds. But even the fact that I’m White is really meaningless until someone assigns it a value; in itself it is not superior or inferior to any other human skin color.

In the diagram above I have depicted a critical distinction between who we are as world-spinning egos and what we are as human beings. Our nature as human beings has a dual orientation, with an extroverted aspect (body) engaged with the sensory-physical environment around us, and an introverted aspect (soul) opening to the mystical-intuitive depths of our own existence.

Just so we don’t fall to the temptation of splitting these aspects of our nature into a temporal (and temporary) container for an immortal personality, I have used the image of a Möbius band which is a surface with only one continuous side. Yes indeed, there appears to be an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to the strip, but if you trace your finger along its surface you will see that there is no division between them. The dual orientation of body and soul is a duality, not a dualism.

Wonderfully, this duality is built right into the term ‘human being’, where human represents the extroverted animal aspect (body) and being suggests a more introverted spiritual aspect (soul) with contemplative and creative roots.

Every human being has this dual orientation – all of us without exception. In our nature we are essentially the same. Where we differ is in all those distinctions of identity that tag our individual egos and label our worlds with the values of social membership.

I have depicted identity in my diagram as an arc of development, beginning with the body (all those impulses and urges that must be brought under control) and moving toward an increasingly ‘soulful’ way of being in the world. The long arc between them is where we take on an identity.

We need to become somebody before we can get over ourselves, and getting over ourselves is the great work of religion at its best. Only when we transcend the masks that define who we are, can we enter into those experiences of depth, authenticity, wholeness, and communion made possible by what we are as human beings.

Each of these experiences requires a stable base from which we then drop, reach, or leap beyond ourselves, and this stable base is known as ego strength, in critical contrast to egoism or ego inflation.

Picking up on what I mentioned earlier, when we start feeling insecure – and by this I mean unsafe, unloved, impotent, and unworthy – our tendency is to try to fix the problem by shrinking our world to dimensions we can manage and control. In light of my distinction between (human) nature and (ego) identity, this plays out in the way we over-identify with what makes us different – special, better, and more deserving than others.

The essentially creative energy of what we are gets pumped into these invented categories of who we are, and disastrously away from the source of human empathy. As this condition persists we begin to lose our ability to understand and identify with the suffering of others. Who cares? They’re not important – not White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) – like me.

Now, it should be obvious that as long as we stay up in the web of identity, gripping down on what makes us special, the prospect of our human fulfillment in genuine community steadily diminishes. Attempted solutions only produce more division, more conflict, and more insecurity in our bid for what will fix the problem.

… when the problem is in ourselves. We are living against our nature.

 

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The Final Recession

Democracy is based philosophically on a belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings. Think about it: if you believe otherwise, that human beings are not basically good – i.e., prosocial, cooperative, and altruistic by nature – but rather selfish, malicious, and vengeful, then why would you support the idea of giving them the power to self-govern?

Democracy’s most vocal detractors over the centuries, including the Greek philosopher Plato, have harbored serious doubts and some deep convictions on the topic. Instead of having no government at all, which would result in a vicious anarchy, they have usually advocated for some form of aristocracy where a few brighter minds, deeper pockets, or bigger clubs run the show and keep the rabble in check.

Not in the American Experiment, however. Its early stages were characterized by a majority (though admittedly not unanimous) vote for basic human goodness.

Granted, American democracy is of the republican (representational) variety and doesn’t give ‘the people’ authority to do whatever they want – which is likely what worried Plato most. But still, in the minds of its principal framers, and eventually in the charter documents they authored as its Constitution, there was a profound confidence in human nature as endowed with certain inalienable rights and communal propensities.

Especially of late, we’ve been seeing less evidence of those supposed communal propensities, and more of what surely seems like a dark side to human nature. The “Me First” campaign of Donald Trump, spun and stitched into his slogan “Make America Great Again,” has activated different impulses in our citizens: suspicion of neighbors, retribution against enemies and those we believe have wronged us, and a readiness to use deception or even violence to get our way. What I coined as “Trumpence” back in 2016 is the resolve to do whatever it takes to put ourselves first.

In a popular sovereignty like American democracy, the elected leader is really a symptom of what’s going on in the nation.

If democracy is to work, its citizens and leaders need to be engaged in recognizing, awakening, empowering, and developing the good in ourselves and each other. If we simply stay back on our heels in shock over what our president has said or done most recently (which is probably right where he wants us), our otherwise creative and communal energies will be caught up in cycles of reaction and effectively neutralized. It’s this backward distancing from what democracy requires that I am calling the Final Recession.

The qualifier ‘final’ makes the point that, should we continue very much longer in this disengaged state, the American Experiment will be over.

So let’s takes stock of what’s falling back and away from the front lines where democracy lives or dies. I have three terms to offer for your reflection. Each one is a vital ingredient to successful democracy, and all together they comprise a complete picture reaching from our overt actions in public life, to the personal discipline of perspective-taking, and deeper into what I regard as our spiritual intelligence as a species.

Just like a plant growing up from its roots, when the vigor underground is compromised or diseased, the whole self is in danger. Our spiritual intelligence is what enables us to reach with awareness into the grounding mystery of existence, circling thence out and around us into the larger contexts of life with an experience-based understanding of our communion with it all. Because of its critical position among my three terms – and since everything higher up expresses and depends on this spiritual health within us – we’ll start here.

Empathy

Not to be confused with pity, sympathy, or even compassion, empathy is our innate ability to identify with and understand another person’s experience. We have this ability by virtue of the fact that the human experience is so similar across historical periods and social realms. You may never have had the experience of being forcibly separated from your parent or child, but you can empathize with what another individual is going through because you have experienced what it’s like to lose contact with someone you love and depend on, to have something you need taken away, or to be prevented from being the support that someone else desperately needs.

Despite the differences among our numerous body features and attributes, the human nervous system is essentially identical across the categories of ethnicity, gender, and age. Because you have known separation and loss in your life, you don’t have to guess what it must be like for a child and parent to be forcibly separated. Yes, to some extent the difference between that human experience and your own may need to be filled in by your imagination – and be grateful if that’s true – but the registration of separation anxiety on a human nervous system is universally the same.

What this means, of course, is that you must check in with your human experience in order to identify with and understand the experience of another. Sure, you can ‘feel badly’ for them in their situation, and even wish it didn’t have to be that way. It must be awful to be separated from the one person you most depend on, you think to yourself. But until you go deep enough into your own experience of separation, isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and loss, you may be said to have pity, sympathy, or compassion for that poor soul, but not empathy – not yet.

Once your nervous system fully identifies with what that other person is going through, then and only then do you realize in a fully experiential way that you and that other person are truly one.

Consideration

From the root meaning “with the stars,” consideration refers to a disciplined practice of looking at your choices within a larger frame of reference. The stars indicate a cosmic frame of reference, which is as large and far out as this frame can go. As the contextual frame is expanded, we also find our view of time lengthening, stretching through the predictable near-future consequences of a considered choice to its foreseeable and likely effects farther out and ahead in time.

Of course, a literal consideration throws the horizon beyond even Earth time, including therefore not only the direct outcome you may be wanting, but the repercussions and collateral effects of a choice on your own life in the longer run, as well as on future generations and other species of life.

Now, you should be able to see how a recession of empathy, a lost connection to your own inner depths, will tend to shrink your frame of reference. Since you cannot really identify with what parent-child separation feels like, your optional futures don’t need to take them into consideration. Indeed your world – referring to the web of meaning you have constructed around yourself – doesn’t include them because they have nothing in common with you.

You probably won’t admit this aloud, but the gap between your life and theirs is enough to make you suspect them as not even fully human. Our president refers to the arrival of Central American families at our border as an “infestation,” which leaves us with one course of action: pest control.

Responsibility

True democracy requires its citizens to exercise self-control, to take care of their property and look after their families, to be informed and involved in their government, considerate of their neighbors, and daily devoted to the greater good. Responsibility is literally the ability to respond, referring specifically to a thoughtful reply in word and action instead of merely reacting impulsively to what happens.

Your ability to respond thus depends on your degree of success in opening a frame of reference beyond the reflex actions and emotional reactions provoked in the moment.

This is where the final recession is most evident today in American democracy. Fewer and fewer citizens bother to vote. More and more of us are allowing the media to curate our picture of the world around us. We feel like things are spinning along their own predetermined courses and that our voices and choices don’t really matter.

If Earth’s mean temperature is rising, what can I do about that? If the government is channeling resources away from education and into defense, then it probably means that we’re vulnerable to hostile takeover (or an ‘infestation’) and just need more bombs than books right now.

If our president is gifted in one thing, it’s in spinning a script to the American people that is on topic with our greatest fears but far out from the actual facts. Many of his executive orders are based in reaction more than genuine responsibility. His “Make America Great Again” campaign shows that his frame of reference is dangerously small and surreptitiously focused in favor of only a very small minority of Americans.

And on the question of whether he truly identifies with and deeply understands the human experience, whether American or Mexican, white or black or brown, rich or poor, here in this country or on the other side of the world – well, what do you think?

In the end – but hopefully before the end – it’s up to you and me. Voters who are more empathically grounded in the human experience, who are more aware of what’s really going on around them, and who take responsibility for their lives, their happiness, and for the wellbeing of everyone, will elect leaders who can truly lead our way forward as a nation.

 

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Being You

Take a few moments to reflect on the difference between what your life means and how it feels to be alive.

The meaning of your life isn’t simply a given, is it? Instead, it is something you have to think about. Indeed, thinking about what your life means is itself the very process whereby its meaning is determined – or in a term that I prefer, whereby its meaning is constructed.

This business of constructing meaning isn’t a solo venture but has involved and continues to include many, many others along with you. In fact, the construction project of your life’s meaning was begun even before you arrived on the scene. In a real sense we could say that the meaning of life is as ancient as human language and culture. And when you were born, this great heritage of meaning served as the larger backdrop against and in light of which your individual project was undertaken.

Meaning is constructed as thinking selves begin to name things in external reality; defining them in terms of their causes, natures, attributes and aims; drawing connections among things; and thereby construing mental webs of significance where each thing refers to something else and ultimately to the greater whole. Name, definition, connection, and reference: such we might say is the architecture of meaning.

Necessarily, the meaning of (your) life has you at the center – this individual person managing an identity through a variety of roles that situate you in the social niches, interpersonal backstories, the collective concerns of your tribe, and increasingly of the global scene as well.

Running through all of these like a spine is the central narrative of who you are – your personal myth. We’re using ‘myth’ here not in the sense of a fallacy or superstition, but according to its etymological root as the connective plot of character, agency, and consequence that holds every story together.

Meaning, then, is fundamentally story-formed and story-dependent.

The meaning of your life is coterminous with the beginning and ending of your personal myth, the story of who you are. Depersonalizing for a moment, we can say that consciousness constructs meaning through language, specifically by telling stories. And as these stories get spinning, they gather into orbit around a center that gradually takes on the character of self-conscious identity: You – or we should more precisely say, the “I” (or ego) that you are.

Reflecting thus on the meaning of life and who you are (which I’m arguing are inseparable), it should be obvious that all of this is ‘made up’ (i.e., constructed) and not a natural property of external reality. Life has meaning because you tell stories that make it meaningful; in itself, life is perfectly meaningless. With Zen Buddhism we can ask, What’s the meaning of a flower apart from our mind? It doesn’t mean anything; it simply is.

To arrive at this awareness, however, you need to release that blooming phenomenon of every label, definition, judgment, and expectation you have put upon it. When this is done and your mind is clear, what remains is a mystery of being. Just – this.

Now turn your attention from what your life means to the grounded and spontaneous feeling of being alive. Feel the weight and warmth of your body. Attend to any sensations on your skin, to the soft hum of consciousness in the background.

With more refined attention you can become aware of the rhythm of your breath, of your life as an organism supported by a complex syndrome of urgencies that serve the needs of your organs and cells. The life in each cell is somehow distinct (though not separate) from the material structure of the cell itself, and this boundary finally recedes into a dark inscrutable mystery.

So when we talk about the feeling of being alive, it’s this deep mystery of conscious awareness, vital urgencies, and physical form – descending into darkness and ascending into the light – that we are contemplating. You are a sentient, organic, and material being; with each step deeper in, the horizon of your existence enlarges exponentially. At the deepest center (of physical matter) you are stardust and one with the Universe. Come back up to the center of your individual self and you are here, reflecting with me on the feeling of being alive.

All of that – going down, dropping away, coming back, and rising again to present attention – is what I name the grounding mystery.

It is out of this grounding mystery and spontaneous feeling of being alive that the unique human activity of telling stories, making meaning, creating worlds, and managing an identity gets launched. Here begins the adventure of a meaningful life. You are reminded that this whole affair – the narrative arc into identity, world, and meaning – is the product and effect of telling stories, a fantastic enterprise in make-believe.

You need to be reminded because it’s the easiest thing to forget. You make it up, put it on, and promptly slip into amnesia.

The danger, of course, is that you will confuse your mental constructions with reality itself. When that happens, particularly as your mental boxes become smaller, more rigid, and out-of-date, the impulse to insist on their absolute truth will grow stronger. You get dogmatic and defensive, and may even become aggressive in your effort to make others agree and accept your meaning as ‘the truth’.

Another serious consequence of this is that you lose touch with the mystery of being alive. What’s more, your complete investment in the absolute reality of your construction project might even compel you to deny the mystery, ignore the intuitions of your animal nature, and live without regard for your place within the great Web of Life.

As I have suggested in other posts, your tendency to forget that you are making all of this up is recognized and addressed in mythology itself. The creation of order (genesis, beginning), the hero’s journey (ego formation) and the establishment of an empire of meaning (kingdoms, ideologies, and worldviews), will one day – and perhaps not far in the future – come apart, fall to pieces, and burn to ashes (apocalypse, to remove a cover or veil).

The world as you know it must end – it needs to end soon, again and again, for you to become fully alive.

When you are free of the delusion of meaning, you can relax into the mystery of being alive. When it’s time again to join the construction project (which you must), you will be able to see through the pretense, engage the role-play without taking it too seriously, and start telling better stories.

 

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