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Human Purpose

In my last post I identified what can be thought of as the channel of creative life, summarized in the “upward-and-outward” flow from internal security, into skillful control, opening up in freedom, and fulfilling its purpose in accomplishment. These four are the positive illusions human beings must have in sufficient degree in order to keep from insanity (where we lose our minds) and inanity (where life loses significance). But there must be a complementarity and balance among them, or else this channel of creativity will get hooked or crimped along the way.

Human beings are animals – however justifiably we may see ourselves as “special” and “unique” among the animals. As such we possess an animal nature equipped with urges, drives, impulses and reflexes that have evolved for our survival and prosperity. The specialness of our species has to do with the fact that our development is socially dependent. Our brain continues to form itself throughout life, according to the challenges and opportunities of social interaction.

With the invention of language and tools, we have been able to adapt to our situation on this planet. But more than just accommodating ourselves to the circumstances, our big brain has enabled us to imagine possibilities, invent our own “socialsphere” of culture, innovating and improvising on reality in astonishing ways. All of this creative output is more than just a further extension of unconscious instinct. It is the expression and product of a certain disciplined, methodical, and technical kind of performance called “skill,” and skills must be learned.

In a skillful performance – of any kind, and it doesn’t have to be “artistic” in the narrow sense – you need to be centered and grounded within yourself. This is what I mean by security. If you don’t have the sense that you are deeply established in a reality that is supportive and provident, the consequent anxiety will interfere with your performance – if it doesn’t entirely block and frustrate your creative flow.

Once established and confident within yourself, the next step is to take up the tool or instrument that will serve as the means by which you will accomplish your outcome. This instrument doesn’t have to be physical or mechanical in nature; your own body (think of dancing) or a theoretical model that provides a way of “wrapping your mind” around something are also examples of instruments. Your skillfulness with such tools involves taking effective control in the movements (physical or mental) required for their intended function.

In the “learning phase” of skill acquisition, your attention is devoted almost exclusively to the mastery of these functional maneuvers. You must get familiar with how the instrument is designed to work. With practice, your movements will become increasingly precise and efficient, reducing the number of mistakes or “user errors.” Over time, your dedicated practice in taking control will get habituated, requiring less conscious attention as the technique becomes trained into memory.

This liberation of attention, made possible by refined and memorized control, is what we call freedom. As it is habituated and memorized, control sinks deeper below the threshold of conscious awareness, freeing your directed attention (focus) for other things. If your skill is perpetually under-practiced or gets “rusty” through lack of use, you are not likely to enjoy this higher freedom that mastery affords. Distraction, laziness, inconsistency and poor technique can keep you stuck in the learning phase. Because it takes concentrated focus and effort to master a skill, never quite getting there can become a slow drain into fatigue, discouragement, and depression.

Once mastered, however, a skill can open up an astonishing range of creative possibilities. Now you are free to express yourself by means of your instrument, leverage the change you desire, and accomplish your goal. Freedom itself is the liberation and expansion of consciousness, up and out from a dedicated attention to control, while purpose amounts to a reinvestment of this energy.

Purpose can be analyzed into its own “yin” and “yang,” as when you do something on purpose (let’s call that yin) and set out to accomplish a purpose or goal (that’s yang). Intention has to do with presence, mental focus, conscious investment and internal engagement with the here-and-now. If I ask you, “Did you do that on purpose?” what I’m wanting to know is whether you intended to do it – not by mistake, out of necessity, or because someone else told you to, but whether you did it freely, willfully, and with full presence of mind. That’s the yin of purpose.

Tao Symbol

The yang of purpose is its objective. Other terms that help fill out the definition are aim, goal, outcome and achievement. In order to accomplish something you need to have some kind of mental ideal or internal representation of what you want to bring about. The projection of that ideal into the future ahead then exerts a reciprocal force upon you by way of attraction, inspiration, or even a sense of “mission.” An objective is yang because of its built-out and externally positioned quality. It cannot be separated entirely from its yin counterpart of intention without becoming disassociated and rigid.

Creativity ultimately flows into purpose. When you are inwardly grounded and secure, masterfully in control of your instrument, and consequently free to explore the possibilities, you can engage the present moment with intention and envision your creative outcome.

A human being, like every other living organism, grows, develops and evolves according to a genetic template. This is not to suggest that life is genetically determined. In fact, science is discovering the surprising extent in which genes are responsive to the environment and experience, turning “on” and “off” in reaction to signals from outside. This is known as epigenetics. Throughout this constant interaction of genetic codes and environmental signals, an organism develops along a species-specific pathway to maturity and fulfillment.

Human beings are creators: this is perhaps the best way to characterize what “maturity and fulfillment” mean for our species. We are not simply driven by our instincts, but neither can we reach our full potential under the constraints of morality alone. I don’t mean to suggest that we should throw off all moral concern and live for our own selfish advancement. Rather we need to grow through our morality and into the higher creative life, living with embodied intention and reaching out with soulful purpose.

Each moment provides a new opportunity to embrace the present and live into what’s next.

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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Soul and Reality

In my last post, I introduced the idea of body, ego, and soul as “standpoints in reality” – not as pieces of a human being, but rather as different mental locations where we can take a perspective on things. Body is organismic and biological, providing us a standpoint in the physical realm. Ego is tribal and personal, giving us a standpoint in the social realm. And soul is psychological (from the Greek psyche, soul) and spiritual, offering us a place in the presence of mystery, in the present mystery of reality.

Instead of breaking these aspects of the self into separate and warring opposites – ego against body, body versus soul – seeing them as distinct access points in our experience of reality can help us transcend the arguments over which one is “the real self” and contemplate instead human being in its wholeness. Rather than identifying ego with the soul, and then dissociating both from the body so “I” can elude the finality of death and live forever, we can appreciate how each contributes to the marvel of what it is to be human.

I reflected on how ego develops out of a simple identification with the internal state of the body. “I am happy” or “I am sad” are among the first ways a young child is taught how to declare him- or herself to the world. This affect (pronounced with the accent on the ‘a’) is where a child’s experience of the world is registered: “The dark closet makes me afraid”; “You are making me angry.” Behavior is then the output channel of this affect, in the way it motivates the youngster to run and hide, or push and pout.

Many people get stuck at this level of development. They remain in the I-am-angry-and-can’t-help-but-push-you-down mode of life. A significant number of them seek out professional help because they are hostages to affect and can’t stop doing things that are counterproductive to happiness. A truly helpful counselor will teach the client how to reflect on these powerful affect states. Instead of simply acting out the affect in behavior and only making things worse, the client can learn how to separate identity (ego) from emotion (affect→behavior) and use this freedom to choose more desirable outcomes.

The “liberated ego” can thus become a springboard into still higher experiences, which the wisdom traditions around the planet have named Love, Communion, Being, and Bliss (among others). It’s important to understand that these are not merely synonyms for “happiness.” The ego wants to be happy, but the soul seeks after something much higher than personal happiness. To get there, ego (I, me, mine) must be transcended, gone beyond. If it stays in charge, the personal self (ego) will be in the way.

As I suggested last time, a shift from the standpoint of ego to that of soul opens the self up to a much greater experience. Engagement with reality at this higher level is not impersonal (as it is for the body) or personal (as it is for the ego), but transpersonal – again, beyond the personal. This is where affect differentiates into feeling and thought. These are the Yin and Yang, respectively, of the soul’s experience. Their “tension” is not combative but creative, like the tension in a string that produces a musical tone.

The wisdom traditions refer to these higher faculties of the soul as “heart” and “mind.” Once liberated from the urgencies of the body and the self-interest of the ego, heart and mind are free to contemplate the present mystery of reality. If I were to describe in one word what each of these faculties of soul contributes to the experience I would say that mind/thought represents reality and heart/feeling participates in reality. Let’s see how this plays out.

Ego, under the direction of the tribe, constructs a world, which is less a representation of reality than it is a projection of what is needed to help us feel safe, loved, capable and worthy. In its service as a faculty of the soul, mind represents reality apart from what I (ego) need it to be. Two favorite ways of representing reality across the wisdom traditions are as “ground” and “universe.”

Representations of Reality

Insofar as mind is dependent on language to name and describe something (the present mystery) that is ineffable, it has offered up these two metaphors for contemplation. Ground is the generative source and deep support that stands underneath all things. Existence – which literally means “to stand out” – properly refers to everything above the ground, so to speak.

The ground itself, then, does not exist in this sense. It is pure being, the internal essence of all things, the be to their ing, the creative power of being-itself. No words can describe it, because language can only qualify what exists and the ground is beneath all qualities. Even the name “ground” must finally be released. In contemplating the mystery as the ground of being, the mystics advise us to stop talking.

As a representation in thought of the real presence of mystery, ground inspires the heart to a certain exquisite kind of feeling. This is not crude emotion, where affect drives behavior. Rather, this feeling registers our participation in the mystery that cannot be named but only surrendered to in complete self-abandonment. In letting go of qualities and attachments, the self can sink into the “solvent” of being itself. The feeling of participation gives way to the bliss of unqualified union or oneness.

Another worldwide representation of reality is universe. This is not to be confused with a term such as “cosmos,” which is a more-or-less scientific name for the vast order of things (cosmos is Greek for order) that can be analyzed into galaxies, stars, planets, moons, minerals, elements, atoms and quarks. Universe is another metaphor, like ground, and not merely a designation of order. As metaphor, universe is a concept of pure thought, a representation by the mind of the mystery all around us.

Literally universe means “turned into one,” which is precisely what this concept does for the soul. It provides a way of contemplating the comprehensive unity of all things – inclusive, interdependent, balanced, turning as one. The soul seeks after wholeness, and the representation of reality as universe offers a simple – though admittedly infinitely complex – image for contemplation.

Notice how “ground” and “universe” stand at opposite ends of a vertical continuum. Ground is in and down; universe is out and up. Ground is beneath us, whereas universe is all around us. Ground is unqualified being, while universe is qualified to an infinite degree. Finally, ground cannot be said to exist, but the universe is the totality of existence.

Contemplating reality in the representation of universe inspires a different sort of experience for the heart. Participation here does not lead to a feeling of dissolving into pure being or oneness, but rather of being elevated into an expansive community. Whereas the former experience is that of sinking into no-thing, the latter is realizing your connection to everything.

In thought, then, the soul represents the present mystery of reality as ground and universe, as the underlying oneness and overarching all-ness of existence. Depending on which representation is the focus of contemplation, the feeling of participation will be distinct and complementary. This interplay of feeling and thought, of heart and mind, of Yin and Yang, is how the soul touches the mystery and finds salvation.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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Standpoints in Reality

My “Conversations” with recent philosophers, theologians, and mystics over the past year have helped me reconsider some terms we commonly use in the investigation of what makes us human. The longer history of higher thought has continuously required us to make distinctions in what we had earlier grasped as “one thing.” The words individuum and atom once named basic and unbreakable units of reality. Now we have created numerous and sometimes competing disciplines for exploring the many parts of the individual and the atom.

Of course, these many parts can become disconnected in our minds, giving rise to further specializations that eventually leave us with so many scattered pieces that we might abandon all hope of ever recapturing a sense of the whole. This “sense of the whole” is what Abraham Heschel meant by wonder. Somehow, after or on the other side of all this mental business of dividing and defining reality into its many pieces, we need to pause and re-member – put them back together so we can appreciate the unity of being.

In that spirit, I want to pause and reflect on that fascinating bit of reality called a human being. And I want to engage this reflection in light of the philosophical commitments of perspectivism, constructivism, evolution theory and metaphysical nonrealism. These were commitments of my Conversation partners, and they are major features of our emerging postmodern worldview – which is still being worked out, by the way.

A human being is a trinity of body, ego and soul. Each of these terms names a particular standpoint in reality, a certain mental location, as it were, where we can take a perspective on things. They are not pieces of a human being – as if one could be removed, lived without, or left behind with a human being still intact. Rather they are aspects or dimensions, distinct ways by which our existence as human beings is expressed and extended into reality.

Standpoints

I’ll begin with the body, for that is where we all begin. Also called our “animal nature,” body is the organismic basis of life. It is a complex organization of vital impulses that I call “urgencies” – urges which have evolved around the need to convert energy from the environment (sunlight, water, nutrients) into biological fuel. As a biological organism, the body has evolved ways of adjusting itself and adapting to its surroundings so as to maximize the efficiency of this energy conversion.

As a dynamic energy converter, the body is an organic intelligence that carefully balances its own internal state with the changing conditions of its environment. This orchestration of maintenance (state) and adjustment (reaction) keeps a human being in providential niches where life can be sustained and supported in growth.

If all that sounds coldly impersonal, that’s because it is. We now know that body precedes the personality and serves as the biological basis to the formation of ego. Ego, then, is a second standpoint in reality, extending out of the body and engaging the world at a higher level. This doesn’t make it better or more essential to what makes us human – although it seems right to acknowledge ego as an evolutionary stage beyond the vital urgencies of the body.

Ego refers to the socially constructed identity of a human being. In order to become “one of us” at the tribal level, each human being must gain sufficient liberation from the urgencies and compulsions of biological life. The tribe helps this to happen, by giving the child an alternative set of directives, which Nietzsche called “morality.” Morality is necessary to the formation of identity, providing a counter-force to the animal instincts and redirecting (but also repressing) these impulses into socially acceptable behavior.

The body’s internal state serves as the subjective reference of the ego’s stand-point in reality. If the body is anxious, the ego says, “I am afraid.” If the body is incited to aggression, the ego says, “I am angry.” If the body is satisfied and content, the ego says, “I am happy.” The “I am” in each case exposes a tendency of the ego to identify with the body’s internal state.

Otherwise, the ego might say something like, “I feel afraid” – which demonstrates an ability to distinguish between a subjective feeling and its underlying biology. This ability to separate affect and behavior provides an important gap that the ego enjoys as freedom – the freedom to choose a course of action (or restraint) above the compulsions of the body’s animal nature. Not everyone is successful arriving at this point, as evidenced in the proliferation of neurotic disorders where the individual gets stuck in overwhelming affect states and compulsive behaviors.

But if – and this is a very big if – an individual is able to gain sufficient liberation from reactive impulses and adequate moral guidance from the tribe, another standpoint in reality is made available. This is what we call the soul.

My challenge here is to understand soul without relying on metaphysical realism. It is becoming less meaningful and relevant these days to regard the soul as some kind of ghost in the body, which can carry on perfectly well (or even better) without the burdens of mortality. Metaphysical realism treats the soul as a thing, separate from and independent of the body. This thing is believed by many to not only survive the body, but to live forever. As we should expect, the tribe has exploited this belief for the purpose of enforcing the moral conformity of the ego.

Just as ego uses the body’s internal state as the basis of identity, soul is a still-higher standpoint in reality where feeling and thought differentiate out of this subjective affect. The ability mentioned earlier, of distinguishing between “I” and “this feeling I have,” is a sure sign of the individual’s transcendence of ego. But again, transcending only means “going beyond,” not leaving behind.

Once lifted above the need to either protect or promote identity (ego), affect can differentiate into even subtler experiences, which have produced great works of art and other cultural achievements of our species. Feeling and thought are the Yin and Yang of the soul, with each creative expression adding spread and height to the growing tree of wisdom. They complement each other, deepening and expanding in creative partnership.

Only ego sees them as opposites, where one must win and the other lose.

Soul joins the dance, where the push and the pull, the rise and fall, the silence and the sound come together, only to spin out again. In that moment – yes, in every moment, but now in full mystical awareness – the soul is in the presence of mystery. This is the place of inspiration (feeling) and enlightenment (thought), where all the “parts” are suddenly seen – in a sustained flash of intuition – as rooted in a common ground, as diverse fruits of a single tree.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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