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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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The Last Delusion

If you ask most people “Who are you?,” after their proper name you’re likely to get a short list of roles they perform in the various social niches of their life. As I use the term, ‘niche’ refers to a particular environment of social interaction where individual members carry identities assigned and scripted by a coherent narrative which they all accept as the story of what’s going on.

Every time we step into a niche, we do so at the entry point of a role – unless we are a stranger or an intruder; but even then we will be regarded as a stranger or intruder, which is a kind of role as well. Roles can be thought of as personas (from Greek theater for the ‘masks’ worn by stage actors), and every persona comes with a script that we need to learn and personalize (or make our own). Depending on the niche, a particular role will be more or less flexible in allowing such personalization, but in some cases there is no flexibility whatsoever.

The coherent narrative mentioned above is an essential aspect of a niche; you might think of this ‘story of what’s going on’ as the temporal (time) counterpart to the contextual (space) aspect of a niche. All of the smaller interactions unfolding between and among the member roles are contained and validated by the bigger story, and it would not be a misuse of the term to call this bigger story a myth. Myths are narrative compositions that serve to construct our concepts and images of what really matters to us – or, which is more likely, myths make certain things matter to us.

A myth establishes what it means to live and act inside its niche: who we are, where we’re going, why it matters, and even what we want.

In our family niche, for example, the myth tells us that what we want is security, love, and belonging; these are values we associate with what a family should be (or ideally is). Our own family is a ‘true family’ to the degree it matches this archetype as established in the myth. In a different niche – say, the workplace – other values may attach to what it means to be a member, how we should live and act in that setting according to its primary myth. Maybe not security, but risk-taking; not love, but power; not belonging as much as standing out and getting noticed.

Another term important to understand is World, which is not a synonym for the global environment, planet Earth, or the universe at large, but designates the total set of niches where our identity is constructed and negotiated. As each niche has its primary story, or myth, we can call this total set of big stories our mythology – simply the collection of myths that orient us in reality and determine our perspective on what matters.

A mythology, in other words, is to our world as each myth is to its niche. The world is therefore a narrative complex of many stories that projects a logosphere or ‘sphere of meaning’ around us, inside of which we wear the masks and perform the roles that define who we are.

The normal course of socialization aims at our full identification with the roles we play. This is why the average person you ask will tell you “I am ______” by naming the different roles they play in life. But they’ll probably not use or even think of who they are in terms of role-play. In a simple and straightforward sense they are the personae that the niches of daily life require them to be.

This is what I call the First Delusion.

Historically our wisdom traditions – referring to the ancient heritage of mystical insights, life principles, and ethical ideals – have served to liberate individuals from this trap of mistaken identity. You are not the roles you play in life but the actor who is playing the roles. Your true self is distinct from the masks, scripts, stories, and stages on which you perform. When you realize this, you will no longer be subject to the vagaries of your ‘audience’ – all those others whose approval, praise, or criticism have been your driving motivation. From now on you can live your life not as a role-performance but in the spirit of freedom and creative authority.

The message might continue, however, telling you that just as your roles are temporal (in time), temporary (for a time), and relative to the roles of other players in the niches of your world, your true self is eternal (outside time), everlasting (for all time), and separate from all the drama. There may even be some nonsense about this true self making a ‘contract’ with destiny to incarnate in the fleshy vehicle of your mortal body, perhaps cycling through numerous such incarnations until the moment you see the truth, the truth sets you free, and you can reclaim your divine nature.

This I will call the Last Delusion.

That added twist on the message – the whole thing about your true self being metaphysically transcendent, immortal, and divine – plays well to an audience that is world-weary, chronically anxious, and self-obsessed. Just like us.

Its character as a delusion is focused in the way it diverts liberation from the First Delusion (“I am the roles I play”) by conceiving our ego (the actor) as an absolute center of personal identity, separate and separable from the body, an essentially indestructible unit of pure consciousness from an altogether different realm. The healthy and necessary deconstruction of identity encouraged by our wisdom traditions gets aborted in the interest of saving the ego from extinction.

But what’s wrong with that?

It’s not necessary to attach a moral judgment (wrong or bad) to this maneuver, but maybe a therapeutic one will make sense. Therapy is concerned with healing, health, wholeness, and well-being – values that are central to a developing spirituality as well. In the early stages of development individuals are guided by society into the First Delusion, where we are expected to carry on with our assigned roles. Thus engaged, we are most susceptible to the instructional download of cultural assumptions, priorities, and aims which are critical to social stability and cohesion.

Living by such programs is what Nietzsche lambasted as ‘morality’: getting in line, following the rules, and effectively subordinating our creative spirit to the value-orthodoxy of the tribe. For roughly the first half of life this is how it goes for most of us. The structure and sequence of incentives offered to us – hugs, stickers, trophies, awards, certificates, promotions, and titles – fuel our motivation to play along and do our best.

At some point, however, the luster starts to fade and we find ourselves having to muster the effort to keep at it. Only now we are getting a sense that it is all, indeed, a play. Granted, a very serious theatrical production in ‘let’s pretend’, but a pretense nonetheless. And those who really get caught up in it tend to be the most pretentious among us!

Lots of research correlates this disillusionment with the transition of mid-life, when all those prizes for conforming begin to feel less interesting or important. Or at least they don’t connect as much to the authentic self we more deeply aspire to be.

Regardless of when it comes about, our developing spirituality has brought us to the threshold of genuine self-discovery and liberation. This where the wisdom teachings drive home the message:


It’s not all about you. The life you have is transient, and each moment is profoundly precious. Get over yourself and invest in what really matters – not for the reward or recognition, but because in so doing you are fulfilling your reason for being, which is to give your life as a ransom for many. They need to know this shining truth as well, so be a light on their path in the time you have left.


And this is also where we might get lured into the Last Delusion, taking to believe that we are above it all, just passing through and on our way to live forever, somewhere else.

 

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Science, Spirituality, and The World To Come

I probably spend too much time defending the role of religion in our lives, especially in the opinion of those who identify themselves as nonreligious or atheist. While they tend to define religion as a belief system oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience, I don’t regard any of those components as essential to religion.

It’s not the components – these or any others – that properly define religion, but its function in  connecting and holding them together as a coherent worldview and way of life.

Properly understood, religion is the world-building enterprise that has preoccupied humans since our evolutionary arrival to the scene. Its principal task has always been to nurture and refresh the connection between an objective realm of observable facts (around us) and a subjective realm of intuitive feelings (within us). Just in case my reader is about to resurrect the overworked dualism that pits facts against feelings, where facts are reliable data about reality and feelings are … well, only feelings and nothing we should count on, we need to be reminded that facts are still constructions in the mind and not simply what is ‘out there’.


If you point at something in the objective realm and say, “That is a fact,” I will have to ask, “What, exactly?”

“That, over there,” you’ll reply, and proceed to describe what you’re looking at. But of course, over there only makes sense as a proximal location from our shared point of reference (here), and the words you use will carry connotations from the echo chamber of language – assumptions, for instance, regarding how properties adhere to substances, how single objects are distinguished from their surroundings, how entities are different from events, what associations inform your concept of it, the degree in which my concepts and assumptions match yours, and so on.

In other words, whereas the objective realm of facts appears as if it is separate from the mind, our perceptions, assumptions, and representations of it hold space nowhere but inside the mind. At the same time, our mind is registering a subjective realm of internal feelings – or as we should more properly name them, ‘intuitions’. These are no less real than the facts we observe, just real in a different way. The bias of Western epistemology favoring empirical knowledge of the objective realm has preferred to throw intuition under the bus when it comes to providing information we can count on.


A tricky question has to do with what, exactly, intuition reveals – and that word is chosen carefully as well, since the concept of withdrawing a veil is so prominent in religion. What it reveals is not an object, but, in keeping with the subject-object duality of consciousness, something that has been metaphorically represented in subjective terms as the Supreme Subject, the creative source and essential ground of being itself, or God – not in the sense of a supernatural or metaphysical entity, but the grounding mystery of all things.

The ground of being cannot be observed as separate from us, for it is the deepest truth of what we are – as human manifestations of Being.

Religion, then, speaking more historically perhaps than to its present forms, has the task of keeping the self-conscious center of personal identity (my “I,” your “I”) oriented outwardly to the objective realm by way of a relevant model of reality (or cosmology) and simultaneously oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery within. Over its many millenniums – except in the present day for many believers – religion has worked to align the outer and inner, the universe as we know it and the ground of being, thereby supporting a sense of our existence as grounded in a provident reality.

As our conscious engagement with these two realms has evolved, we’ve come to regard them by the terms ‘science’ (engaged with reality external to the mind) and ‘spirituality’ (engaged with reality internal to the mind).

A shorthand definition of religion, therefore, conceives it as a dynamic system of symbols, metaphors, stories, and sacred performances (i.e., rituals) that maintains a relevant conspiracy of science and spirituality. The stories it tells are a braid of theory (explaining the objective realm) and myth (revealing the subjective realm), which until very recently were complementary narrative strands in our self-conscious engagement with reality.

The product of these two strands working together is what constructivism calls our ‘world’, which exists entirely inside our mind, or in what I have named in this context the imaginarium of belief. As suggested in my diagram, our world opens outwardly to the objective realm and inwardly to the subjective realm, situating us meaningfully within the present mystery of reality. When all is working well, our knowledge of the universe (out and beyond) is relevantly aligned with our intuition of communion (down and within). Religion is relevant and effective and doing its job.

But things do fall out of alignment. Science can move so fast and far ahead in its discoveries that the myths of religion can’t keep up. This is what happened in the West. The myths of creation, providence, and salvation were composed on a cosmological framework arranged vertically in three levels (Heaven, Earth, and Hades or hell). For our salvation Jesus came down from heaven, lived and taught and was killed, at which point he went farther down, but then came up again, and a little later went still higher up, back to heaven where he is currently preparing for his final descent at the end of time.

All that up-and-down business made perfect sense against the backdrop of a three-story universe. Not so much in one that is expanding radially and has no absolute vertical orientation.

Another kind of disorientation happens when our inward sense of grounding is lost. Trauma, tragedy, and chronic stress can sever the anchor-line of faith in a provident reality, motivating us instead to latch onto something we can control, which the Buddha called attachment and the Hebrew prophets idolatry. Idols can range from physical statues, orthodox doctrines, and mental concepts of God, to anything we believe will make us happy and secure (e.g., wealth, possessions, status, glory, or even a utopian “no place” like heaven).

We can’t get close enough to, or get enough of, what we hope will make us happy and secure because nothing can. The more desperate we become and the harder we try, the farther we get from our true center.

When such anxiety overtakes an entire culture and historical era, a consequence can be that individual development is compromised – particularly in regard to the critical achievement of ego strength. This term shouldn’t be confused with ego-centrism, where an individual can’t consider any reality beyond his or her own urgencies, ambitions, and convictions. Ego strength is the goal of individuation, of becoming an individual with a unique center of personal identity and creative authority.

Because anxiety motivates attachment and attachment interferes with individuation, such individuals lack a stable center and have a neurotic need for their world to stay the same. They refuse to accept the new scientific model of reality, and they can’t drop their attachments for a deeper (transpersonal) spirituality. Their religion tends to be oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience.

Their religion, not religion itself. The world to come might be more of the same, which is bad news for everybody. Or it might be different, but that’s up to you and me.

 

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It’s Not All About You

The holiday season affords fresh opportunities for us to get poked, when others get to see sides of us that, in normal and less stressful times, we manage to keep off-stage. A combination of spending money we don’t really have, fighting traffic on the streets and in stores, and gathering with family members who know best where to poke, puts us in that peculiar holiday mood of excitement, fatigue, annoyance, and regret.

Of course, things would probably go better for us (and for those around us) if we understood what it is inside us that gets triggered, causing us (at least that’s how it feels) to act out in ways we later wish we hadn’t. But this would require some serious and honest self-reflection, when our habit is not to look too closely at what’s going on inside.

To what Socrates said about the unexamined life not being worth living, we could add, with the Buddha, that it also perpetuates needless suffering.

In this post I will guide you on a tour of your personality’s interior – yes, it’s true, of mine as well, along with everyone else’s. My constructivist approach to psychology takes the view that our personality, including its executive center of identity (ego, Latin for “I”), is an illusory architecture of social codes, reflexes, attitudes, and defenses that seems very real but is utterly lacking in substance. Who you are, as distinct from what you are as a human being, is purely a construct, a configuration held together by the pretense of being somebody.

The part of your personality that ego presents to the world, also called your ‘on-stage’ self or mask (Latin persona), is confronted with the challenge of negotiating the satisfaction of your needs in an environment of limited resources and the competing interests of other actors. As long as there are no major surprises, emergencies, or unknowns you can manage this negotiation from day to day without much trouble. But when conditions change unexpectedly or you’re forced into situations where you feel threatened, this ‘thin skin’ of who you’re pretending to be can tear open under the stress.

At this point, still deeper and heretofore hidden vulnerabilities are exposed, and these activate more severe defenses – what Wilhelm Reich named ‘character armor’.

My diagram has taken an illustration of Earth’s interior and adapted it to represent the interior of your personality, with its distinct layers of character armor and the vulnerabilities they are meant to protect. The general idea is that deeper pokes (i.e., assaults or threats that penetrate the surface pretense of who you are), provoke more aggressive and extreme defense reactions, presumably because what’s being defended is closer to the core of who you (believe you) are. My guided tour will begin at the very core and then move out from there into layers higher up and closer to the surface of your managed identity.

I’ve made the point numerous times in this blog that all of us without exception have some degree of insecurity at the core. This is inevitable, given our imperfect parents and the unavoidable mis-timing between the urgency and satisfaction of our basic needs in infancy. So it’s not whether we are insecure, but to what extent our deeper insecurity wreaks neurotic havoc in our personality.

We can think of insecurity – although importantly it insinuates itself into the personality before we have acquired language to name or think about it – as an ineffable (unspeakable) sense of risk attached to existence itself. To some extent we all hold a lingering doubt regarding the provident nature of reality.

When external conditions and events make you feel at risk, it’s this character armor around your core insecurity that gets poked. While in most situations of this kind your very existence is not in question, the effect of such surface signals is to arouse a suspicion against reality and its full support. Perhaps there is a memory of an actual past trauma that your present situation is evoking, or it might simply be pressing upon your general anxiety over the prospect of falling into The Abyss.

For mystics, meditation amounts to an intentional descent (what ego fears as a fall) past the personality and deeper into the grounding mystery of being (ego’s Abyss). In popular religion this release of surrender is called faith – commonly confused with belief, and consequently corrupted.

You need to remember that your personality was formed partly by a conspiracy of taller powers (parents, teachers, mentors, and other adults), but also by the strategies you used to get what you needed. Some of these strategies worked marvelously, while others failed miserably. A complicating factor was the insecurity you carried into each new challenge or opportunity.

Even though the challenge or opportunity was directly about your ability to resolve, overcome, or move through it successfully, a sense that reality might not provide the support you needed undermined your self-confidence. The next layer up from the core of insecurity, then, is all about inadequacy: not being enough or having what it takes.

When you feel inadequate, you are willing to let opportunities slip by. This is because you don’t regard them as genuine opportunities – doors opening to possibility, growth, or improvement – but instead as challenges, in the sense that they require something from you and carry a risk of failure.

Your sense of inadequacy, with its roots in insecurity, quickly re-frames such challenges as problems, which you want less of, not more. You trick yourself into believing that you are avoiding a problem when you are actually turning down an opportunity.

One more layer and our picture is complete. Personalities that lack faith in reality and confidence in themselves commonly employ strategies whereby they compare themselves to others – but also to the ideals of perfection they have in mind – and consistently see themselves as not measuring up. In this way, inadequacy translates into inferiority.

The French psychologist Alfred Adler believed that a sense of inferiority is an early driving factor in human development, as youngsters measure themselves against their taller powers (literally superior, as in above them) who seem so omnipotent.

According to Adler’s theory we can come to adopt an inferiority complex where not only are our efforts never good enough, but we ourselves aren’t good enough as compared with others or our mental ideal. As compensation we may insist on our own self-importance, or push others down so we can feel better about ourselves.

With this stratified model of the personality in front of us you can better understand how identity is constructed, at least in part to sustain the illusion that you are somebody. You have it all together, and you show others only what you want them to see. But be ready. As you gather at the table or around the tree this holiday season, you just might get poked.

It will be a good time to remember that it’s not all about you.

 

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The Filters of Illusion

Constructivism is a philosophy that regards the mind as not merely active in our experience of reality (as opposed to some early modern theories which regarded it as a ‘blank slate’ written upon by experience), but creatively active in the way it constructs the mental models we take as our reality. In the course of ordinary experience we don’t typically discriminate between our constructs and the reality they are meant to represent. Constructivism makes such discrimination foundational to its method.

One important implication of this is that because meaning is constructed by the mind, and because our constructs are mental models and not reality itself, what we normally take as real is really being mistaken as such. In other words, our constructs are illusions that shape and filter our perceptions of reality. Truth, then, becomes a question of how reality-oriented (or realistic) a particular illusion is.

Reality-itself remains a mystery, and every time we construct a model (e.g., a concept, belief, or even a theory like constructivism) to make sense of it, we are spinning a veil of meaning – an illusion that removes us to some degree from what is really real.

The application of these insights as therapy, which is to say, as a method for not only understanding the nature of illusion but living as much as possible in communion with the present mystery of reality, is yet another persistent fantasy of mine. I don’t presume that our goal should be to break entirely and permanently free from illusion, but rather that we should self-consciously step into our creative authority as meaning-makers, storytellers, theory-builders, and make-believers.

Instead of mistaking our mental models for reality, we can acknowledge their character as illusions and proceed to look through them, as veils parting (literally revelations) before our minds. Once we see it, we can then do something about it.

It can happen, however, that an illusion is particularly persistent, in which case the veil doesn’t part but instead traps our mind inside its own delusion. Here there is no difference between a construction of meaning and the reality it represents – there cannot be, simply because what is believed must be the way things really are. We have too much invested in our illusion, too much of our security and identity tied up in the web of meaning we have constructed. We are not free, nor do we wish to be. For without meaning reality would be … well, meaningless, and who could bear that?

Actually, the mystical discovery that reality is perfectly meaningless is wonderfully liberating.

In this post we will analyze three filters of illusion that characterize normal psychology, but which of course can conspire in distressed, demented, or radicalized minds to put individuals so out of touch with reality that great harm can come to them, and through them to others. My interest is with normal and not abnormal psychology, since this is where most of us live. If we can understand how normal people lose touch with reality, we might also gain some insight into what happens when someone falls pathologically into delusion.

My diagram depicts an eye looking out on reality – not the so-called reality represented in our mind, but the present mystery of reality independent of our mental models. It is ineffable: indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless. The first and most massive filter of illusion is our personal worldview, which is not only the internal picture we have of what’s outside us, but a projection of what’s going on inside us as well.

The philosophy of constructivism received strong confirmation as commerce, conquest, and migration revealed a diversity of cultural worldviews on our planet. This challenged us to consider the possibility that such local distinctions at the societal level might continue down into even more granular detail for individuals – which, of course, it does. Each of us maintains a filter of illusion that represents our place in the scheme of things.

Throughout life our worldview will be updated and evolve in response to greater depth and scope in the range of our experiences.

It is possible for our worldview to lock up and resist this normal process of reality-checking what we think we know. To understand the cause behind such resistance we need to go one step deeper into the filters of illusion. What we find there are ego ambitions that drive and define our personal life – craving those things we feel we can’t be happy without, and fearing the prospect of not getting them or losing them once we do.

This dual drive of desire and fear is the mechanism that defines ambition (ambi = both or two). Our ambitions can be so powerful as to make us insist that reality must be set up in such a way as to support our fantasies of happiness; hence our worldview as a projection of deeper forces within us. Our mental models are less about reality in some objective sense, and more about the restless ambitions that subjectively preoccupy us.

According to the anonymous maxim, we don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

But we’re not yet at the deepest filter in our construction of meaning. One last step carries us into those earliest and most urgent points of interrogation by which our sense of self and reality is forged – what I name our feeling-needs. Whereas our conventional notion of need refers to a correlation between an internal requirement and an external resource, such as the need for nutrition and the provision of food, a feeling-need refers to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

A key to understanding feeling-needs is recognizing that they are not necessarily correlated to external reality. We may be safe in actual fact and completely sheltered from danger, but if we don’t feel safe, that’s what really matters. I’ve written about feeling-needs in other posts, so we won’t go much farther into them here, except to point out the way they are developmentally implicated in each other.

A lack of feeling safe compels us to satisfy this need at the level of love, which turns relationships into attachments. Because real love only grows in freedom, our need to feel loved cannot be satisfied here. So we employ our capabilities in an effort to earn, flatter, please, impress, or coerce others to love us. As a consequence, our sense of worthiness gets tied to acceptance and approval by others, whether we are useful in their feeling-need satisfaction strategies.

In this way individuals become mechanisms in a codependent dysfunctional system, neither one getting what they really need but each too anxious to let go.

Following this sequence in reverse, we now have a better understanding of the filters of illusion. Our unique profile of frustrated feeling-needs fuels our ego ambitions, which in turn predispose us to imagine and construct a personal worldview where our hopes can be fulfilled.

And all of this as we live, right now, in the present mystery of reality.

 

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