Confessions

“In spite of the appeal which this impersonality of the scientific attitude makes to a certain magnanimity of temper, I believe it to be shallow, and I can now state my reason in comparatively few words. That reason is that, so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term. I think I can easily make clear what I mean by these words.
The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed. The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner ‘state’ in which the thinking comes to pass. What we think of may be enormous – the cosmic times and places, for example – whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one. A conscious field plus its object felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus a sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs – such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is a solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the ‘object’ when it is taken all alone. It is a full fact, even though it be an insignificant fact; it is of the kind to which all realities whatsoever must belong; the motor currents of the world run through the like of it; it is on the line connecting real events with real events. That unshareable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny as he privately feels it rolling out on fortune’s wheel may be disparaged for its egotism, may be sneered at as unscientific, but it is the one thing that fills up the measure of our concrete actuality, and any would-be existent that should lack such a feeling, or its analogue, would be a piece of reality only half made up.
… I think, therefore, that however particular questions connected with our individual destinies may be answered, it is only by acknowledging them as genuine questions, and living in the sphere of thought which they open up, that we become profound. But to live thus is to be religious… It does not follow, because our ancestors made so many errors of fact and mixed them with their religion, that we should therefore leave off being religious at all. By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard. Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all.”
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Italics in original

 

Christianity, it turns out, is a very dangerous religion to misunderstand.

Its symbolic currency includes Death, the Devil, and Hell. Get the meaning of these wrong, what these symbolic teachings are really about, and the mind can be lead to madness, the heart can have compassion torn from it, and the body can be lead to commit suicide or “sacred” murder.

I believe that Buddhism, particularly Vajra Buddhism with its understanding of magical ways, is going to play an ever increasing role in the West as its social, economic, and spiritual collapse proceeds. The Buddhism of Tibet only had a major impact on the culture after it had integrated itself with the people’s shamanistic Bon religion. I think we are involved in something similar now, that there is a task of integration with Christianity that is needed if Buddhism as it is practiced here is going to be anything more than skin deep. That entails a conscious reconciliation with Christianity. It is not unusual in the American Buddhist circles to hear of well known American Buddhist teachers suddenly becoming Christians. These are not necessarily mistakes on their individual journeys, just less wise than it might be. As we learn to become still, sitting quietly, the traumas of our lives surface. That is the universal formulae grounded in human biology. For people raised in the Christian West this often, though not always, will include a confrontation with the religion of one’s ancestors.

I am not interested in some abstract theological argument in which people are concerned which of these traditions, Christianity or Buddhism, is “right.” I am concerned with how healing trauma takes place. Creeds can soothe the mind of a convert for awhile but their possessive glow always wears off eventually. We are concerned with a change of heart that lasts a lifetime. We are looking for something that slams the door once and for all on the power of the suicidal impulses instilled within people wounded by abuse.

For many people engaged with issues of world religion and comparative mythology the Christianity of today is a tradition that seems to lack depth. People who study the philosophy of the East are left wondering why the sacred books of the West seem to speak on the level of nursery tales, lacking psychological sophistication. For many people in the West those who talk most about jesus are seen to be little more than smug and shallow people who are moved by any number of psychological needs to push their religion – except compassion. For every Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu we seem to get 10,000 bible thumping fundamentalists coming out of the Western traditions, obsessively elitist and emotionally cruel. Reason sticks with evidence and as it was once said, by their fruit you will know them. We as a society have seen a lot of bad fruit.

Christianity in the West has all but forgotten its own contemplative traditions. As it is often understood and taught, it lacks real respect for the mystical states of consciousness inherent in the religious search (which provide the bridge between psychological science and religious faith), it has a poor grasp of the role its tales of magic and miracles plays in our dreaming and waking minds, and, perhaps most alarming, has been transformed into a farce by TV preachers and those of the “jesus meek and mild” camp or, even worse, converted into farce by the Rambo-jesus of the Holy Warriors preparing Armageddon in his name. It’s hard to imagine that jesus ever saying “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”

In these posts we have talked about Buddhist concepts more often than Christian. This is going to shift. I was born within a Christian culture, it is what I know biologically. It gave me my mind’s most basic terms for clothing the mystery of being. This was not only due to the Santa Clause and Easter Egg traditions we have already talked about as operative in many American families. I further attended a private Episcopal school and spent considerable time meditating in chapel by my own choice. The corpus on the Cross made a profound impression on me as my young life fell apart. A love-hate relationship with the religion of my society has accompanied me ever since. I want to talk about what I’ve learned over the years watching myself and others deal with religious issues, Christian and otherwise. For those like myself who took Christianity in with their mother’s milk, and took it seriously, it is my hope that something I say will resonate and maybe aid your own relationship with the mythological clothing over the mysteries with which you were born. I think it has a treasure trove of profundities most people have never been taught to see. For those from cultures that are not Christian, I hope that this exploration might provide pointers for what to look for in their own traditions. We share the same biology. We share the same task of needing to make peace with what we were given.

No location on the planet is going to be left unaffected by the changing climate, sixth extinction, and the rest of the baleful bag of bad heading our way. Everywhere this wrestling with who and what we are as a species is going to be taking place, and taking place under triage conditions. It may go better if people of goodwill, religious or otherwise, can find one voice. Earth needs each person of every faith in this, her hour of trial, teaching clearly that real spirituality starts by first showing respect for the reality of what we have been given. We are not going to skillfully address the ecological crisis without addressing the need to better understand the human psyche which created the crisis. That seems to be the task. From the cave paintings on to the Louvre, we have been inescapably involved in the evolution of that realm that is as real as rocks in its own way, yet populated with the angels and demons, the as-if beings who populate the metaphorical world where we find, or fail to find, meaningful human lives.

Dogmatically insisting our metaphors are something other than what they are displays a dangerous lack of faith in that which is real. It lead to the dangerous willingness to sacrifice the real for fictions which we see all around us today. What ails us is the accelerating collapse of stable ecological systems at our own hands. We are being told that the solution for what ails us is accelerated economic growth, isolationism, war, patriotic racism, and a return to “old fashion religion.” Those who have become mindful of ecology disagree. We see other factors at play and believe other solutions are needed.

I was taught to meditate in the Vedanta fashion when I was five or six years old; the interplay of Eastern and Western thought has always been a part of the world I have known. It was decades ago that I learned what the inner parts of the Christian Mysteries mean to me and made my peace with that. I would not want to mislead any of my readers on this point by not mentioning that I am also a card carrying Catholic. I am “legally” able to attend Mass, the West’s signature symbolic ritual. It has been in the interplay between mysticism and church, atheism and faith, religion and philosophy – both Eastern and Western – that most of what has helped me deal with my own abuse has taken place. There is an element of ambiguity in all this which I have been taught over the years to see as a source of creativity, not something that needs to be escaped. I keep my mandala open in the eastern direction. Life is large, I am large, the people I know and the people I love are large – too large to be put into neat little dogma boxes.

The complete mandala is three dimensional so can only be seen with stereoscopic vision. “A conscious field plus its object felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus a sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs,” William James writes, catching the fullness of the whole. We need to learn to see all sentient beings this way. In that spark of destiny dynamically being made real, we see the sacred.

The determining feature for me is not an intellectual choice to uphold this or that creed so much as it is a surrender to biological facts within my experience of conscience. This is what leads me to say I am both a Buddhist and a Christian (and a religious psychologist of sorts). Actually, I don’t say that. These are only useful as labels to convey to my readers something important about my position. The labels are bridges fraught with misunderstanding between something I sense to be important within my way of thinking, and you who are graciously reading my words. When I think about myself I tend not to consider myself either, though each have earned my loyalty. I am just a human being who has been blessed with a chance to learn from some good people how to listen to my own broken heart. Here, in the coincidence of opposites, is where I found the truth, the way, and the life, and whatever healing I have known or been able to share, old fool that I am.

One of the things I have learned, sometimes the hard way, is not to be too carried away by enthusiasms. Young men and woman full of charisma can be found shouting assuredly of their various faiths left, right, and center in America. I have learned to be a bit more patient. I am interested in how these recommended “religious” tenants and practices bear fruit in the way people actually live their lives. The temporary fruits of the moment do not interest me much. After all, the first act of a tragedy is characterized by everything seemingly going well. Show me the men and women of your faith in their 70s or 80s and let me see if their hands touch me with the unmistakable warmth of compassion and their eyes glow with a delight for life and peaceful gratitude – or if they are just frightened, terrified to face the end and struggling to keep the ego-persona in place that denies how deeply the fear has effected them.

The point of mythology is that these stories are larger than we are as individuals. Just as life is. The religious mythologies, in particular, display all the necessary contours of that which is of the psyche, yet larger than the individual personality. Countless people before us found these stories important and saw to it that they were handed on. Long after we are gone the same stories will still be around, continuing to influence and form the human experience for better and for worse. That which is larger than ego does not conform itself to its beck and call. The strong streak of independence in the West have left Americans thinking they are free to choose any mythology that fits their fancy, or none at all. Some even dare to twist them into any shape that seems to serve their immediate needs. Let me repeat: the point of mythology is that these stories are larger than we are as individuals. This is the mistake fundamentalists of all stripes make: they put god in their pocket and become all together too chummy with the great emptiness from which the ground of being flows. It is not wise to make god your personal servant, mafia don, publicity hound, the core attraction of your business plan, or the personal guarantee of your government’s foreign policy.

Christianity, it turns out, is a very dangerous religion to misunderstand.

We will begin talking about this next week.

Must?

“He practiced rational emotive imagery at least once a day by imagining that people were really acting stupidly, letting himself feel very angry about this, and then working on feeling only disappointment and frustrated, but not angry, about their stupid behavior.”
Albert Ellis, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything

 

I care deeply about the destruction of the ocean. Since my earliest childhood, playing in the waves has been one of the ways I most treasure participating in the powerful natural forces of our earth. I have taught my wife to bodysurf. I have taught my children. I deeply want my children to be able to teach their children the same joy of splashing in and swimming with, instead of against, the great currents of our planet. I tell you this so that you can understand when I say it is important to me that the oceans do not die on my watch. When I consider that what my society is doing today is likely creating the ocean die-off time-bomb that will haunt my children’s children’s children, and on, and on, for longer than my heart can bare to think about, anger lives inside me. Then I remember that even an ocean die-off is unlikely to remove the act of bodysurfing from the planet. That sweet kiss of flesh and salt water in which an organic return encapsulates billions of years of hard earned evolution by choosing to come back and play, to laugh in the tides, that will remain. The anger is gone. I am deeply disappointed in the people around me. I am frustrated they do not see and value as I see and value. But somehow in correcting my view of the ocean die-off it also alters my view of my fellow human creatures. No one is deliberately setting out to do evil; that’s one for the comic books. Tough, but there it is.

I have transformed the anger into frustration. Anger is susceptible to rage and rage to violence. Shutting the door on anger I now deal instead with issues around how well I am able to tolerate this frustration and disappointment. Working on my frustration tolerance is no walk in the park, but I can do so with a peace denied my angry mind. The key to shutting the door on anger instead of repressing it was using my reason to reframe my understanding.

Flights of fancy, day dreams, artistic inspirations and many other states of mind use the non-rational and irrational productively. The bounds of reason are far too limited to capture all that the heart needs to communicate. Symbolism and metaphor fill our art and poetry, drama and literature to compliment our understanding. Comedy and humor, so often the balm of life, very often depends on cognitive errors like exaggeration for their effect. We are called, at times, to be our own poets, artists and comedians, so it is important in mind training that we do not try and control our ever changing thoughts too much. If we grasp at all this too tightly we just kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Still, the art of cognitive training consists of catching the mind as it engages in irrational thoughts being passed off as rational – and firmly disputing those irrationalities. In our mind training, as in science, we are after more truth. We do not expect perfect or absolute truth. We do expect we can whittle away a bit at our own ignorance with work and practice. The key is to look for those thoughts that will not stand up to a rational analysis yet claim to be rational. These are the ones that are worth keeping an eye on. Their deceptive cloaks can make us feel as though we are being rational in the moments we are entertaining them. It is only when we step back and take a look at things more objectively that we recognize that what they are asserting is highly improbable, if not down-right hokey. Happiness, even sanity, depends on firmly disputing these cognitive errors.

The model of REBT teaches that when we are deeply disturbed we are telling ourselves something in a semi-divine imperative voice. We are lording over ourselves with a MUST. Which is giving you your greatest difficulty?

I must do well.
You must treat me well.
The world must treat me well.

We greatly prefer to do well and be treated well but we only hurt ourselves if we think we must be. That is nothing more than childishly magical thinking born of taking ego as divinity. Adults should recognize that human beings are fallible creatures and the world is an imperfect place. The sort of absolutism this kind of must-thinking represents is not at home in these conditions. It is not well adapted to reality so it can cause all sorts of trouble both for individuals and nations.

One of these variations of what Ellis calls MUSTerbation will likely be at the root of whatever it is that is disturbing you. These beliefs destroy peace of mind by judging your self-worth against unrealistic criteria. If you believe these types of things you have been set up to fail because these are really double binds. If these are your criteria for self-worth you just cannot win because even when you do well today, or someone treats you well today, or the world bestows its finest gifts upon you today, you know that tomorrow will most likely be a different matter. Win and you fail; fail and you fail; the Catch 22 of the double bind.

So of course, once we clearly see this, we simply must not use must. Right? And around and around we go. Here is where skill comes in. It teaches us to bring to the work a gentle touch, knowing we are most effective when guided by patience. The psyche is complex. As we have previously discussed there are many times that the shadow is working important work in maintaining our actual adaptation to the actual environments we find ourselves in. All that seems weak, sinful, sniveling, all those parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of and make outcasts, they need to have a place at the table of the Self too. No self improvement program started by the ego should dare to try and shed that shadow too quickly or too completely. Perfection is not for us. We can not even perfectly accept our imperfections – but we can imperfectly accept our imperfections and that is good enough.

REBT is a good tool to have on the cognitive tool belt. We all are prone to some crazy-making and we have it in our power to diminish or even, sometimes, remove it entirely. I have found myself using REBT periodically for decades. There are times it’s powerfully helpful to lay out the semi-conscious irrational beliefs that I have gathered from the on-going confrontations between my character and the world. Things shift around with the passing of the years and this technique has let me periodically tighten up the Ship of State, as it were. Writing out the irrational beliefs and writing out their disputations as taught is a bit silly but it has had surprisingly powerfully positive effects for me and thousands of others. Your mileage may vary but I am convinced that some form of disputing the mind’s irrational beliefs is required for mental health.

It is also required for social health. A society that cannot hold its own irrational beliefs up for examination loses one of its most effective means of navigating events and finding appropriately proportionate responses. The idea dominate in the over-developed world that the earth simply must give us the resources we need to continue feeding Homo Colossus is one of those irrational beliefs. Seen through the lens of mindful ecology our accelerating use of dirty oil, dirty coal, and dirty nuclear energy in the face of climate change facts is just a way of saying to the earth, like a somewhat ungrateful bully, “you owe me.” “Look at all I have done in my building and dreaming, creating technologies that mimic the magic of the gods, it cannot all have been for naught!” This is just more MUSTerbation and now it is doing a deadly dance with All-or-Nothing thinking. It implies, no, it insists that the only way forward is more of the same or “by god we will blow the whole thing up.” Isn’t that how the rest of the semi-conscious threat-thought runs in the haunted basement of the public square?

Working on our minds is the most direct route to working on the issues of ecology.

The REBT exercises train the mind to be on the lookout for temptations towards exaggerated conceit on the one hand, or self-damning on the other. These are the mistakes that accompany irrational beliefs. If we allow ourselves to have too high and mighty evaluation of our place then the slightest ego threat is perceived as an attack on our fundamental worth and can lead quickly to violent rage. In the other direction self damning leads to depression by confusing the guilt that might rightly belong to an action taken in the past which we have come to regret, with guilt about our very existence. We are confused by thinking not that I did a terrible thing but that I am a terrible person. This cripples the solution to past terrible actions, namely, future non-terrible actions.

These cognitive errors represent the human mind claiming god-like powers. This is rather obvious in the commands behinds the MUST but its not hard to see in the All-or-Nothing’s black and white perfectionism either, and so on for the rest of the cognitive errors we are prone to. This western mind training becomes a way of keeping in touch with the genuinely human. This is where, as the pages of our life history and our community’s history unfold, we will do many things well but not all things, others will often treat us well but not always, and the world will take the most exquisite care of us, furnishing us with everything we need to survive, even thrive, but not always.

Safe Containers

While we are watching the acceleration of the great clash of monotheisms in the Middle East it is a good time to be strengthening our triage skills. These can be worked with during times of lesser crisis to prepare us for what’s ahead. This is similar to the mind training that the eastern traditions teach. It is a way of practicing with our minds today so that when the day comes that things get difficult (classically in the east this is the day of one’s death) we do not find ourselves without any reserves to call on. Mindful Ecology involves mind trainings that are designed to strengthen a person when lesser deaths occur. These might involve the collapse of the economy, an ecological system, good will among citizens, integrity in government, authenticity among religious leaders, or any number of endings that cause an increase in suffering, anomie, confusion and loss.

No one’s life is spared the rough spots. It is not the case that the wealthy and powerful, or the poor and simple, live a life without serious challenges to keeping sane let alone keeping an open heart. It is not just because of our ecological knowledge that the skills we are talking about have relevance. These are skills that can aid us in any number of life’s arenas. The thoughts in the mind are the earliest seeds of what will become emotions and eventually actions. The actions we perform or refuse to perform are where we find our character reflected back to us from the world soul. Countless decisions over years are expressing something that can be expressed no other way, something about how we are in our innermost.

Along the path of expression from thought to action there is an element of choice. The will uses this element of freedom to express itself. Though circumstances typically constrain our ability to make this expression one that is fully in accord with our desire, there is never so little choice left to a human being that some sense of character cannot be made to dwell within the manner by which their actions are undertaken. I believe the prisoner on their way to their execution still retains some degree of freedom in how they will meet the event. How much more so than do each of us, who are not under such immediate threats, have an opportunity to make real in the world that which is part of our innermost. This expression of true will is always a question of degrees and that is where our training comes in. It is inescapable that each person actually will express their uniqueness, there is no way not to. It is, to put on the science hat, an expression of your parental DNA inheritance and as such a unique biological event. Add the uniqueness of each environment you have inhabited from childhood on and the one of a kind nature of your personality becomes even more obvious. It is important we learn to thoroughly grasp this, see the truth of it, and really hear what is being said. To the best of our human understanding it is a fact that throughout all of deep time and across all of deep space it is astronomically unlikely that the many contingent relationships between your DNA expression and the environment by which it was shaped will ever happen in just the way you have it happening right here and right now. This is it. You have a part to play in dreaming the dream forward, as Carl Jung used to say.

In our time of mass man, mass media, mass armies, and mass movements it has never been more important to understand the role of the other social polarity, namely that of the individual. It is not true for my heart that you could just replace my most beloved friends and family with anyone else. Though another person could play the role of my mother or father, son, daughter, or spouse, there is not the slightest chance I would find my body and mind responding to the newcomer in the same way that it has learned to understand the people that are in my life today. This is true for all of us. Keeping this truth in mind paves the way towards an ability to see the uniqueness of the world around us; to see a tree in the forest and not just so many board feet of lumber.

This is the skill that is lacking in our societies, this ability to appreciate the miracle of the life forms in front of us. We have been trained to fawn before the rich and powerful, presenting them with praises and constant reassurances about how great and awesome they are. Fearing social ostracism otherwise, often with real financial repercussions, it is certainly an understandable habit given the reality of our corporate dominated societies. Still, those are rather false expressions of an appreciation for another person because they are motivated by fear of what they can do to you if you earn their disfavor and the hope that by your flattery and attention they will come to gift you with some of their money and influence. This is very different than looking deeply into another sentient being just for the sake of witnessing their unique expression of the mystery of will. Too often, it seems to me, we cannot even do this among human beings. The way we treat those in our ghettos speaks volumes. It should come as no surprise that we are blind to the faces of the eagles, octopus, wolves, whales, and blue footed boobies. We have an interest in the ocean because it can provide us with food and those who fish it with money and power. If tomorrow a chemist invented fish in a factory, do you think we would do much to save the oceans for their own sake? What real value do we place on the lives of those who dwell in the depths? Just how much lower do we rank them then those many tortured lives in the world’s ghettos?

These are statements in the realm of values, not of facts. The facts are that the uniqueness of DNA expression is undeniable. Facts pass over into values when we recognize that the human mind is born with the potential to know compassion as the highest value but it takes education, real training, to realize that potential. This is another fact we have learned over long millennia in the school of hard knocks. Through our mythology and traditions we do our best to teach the value of compassion to each new generation as it comes along. Though the value of compassion runs counter to the hubris of our egos, it is the sweetest liberty the heart can know: to love others as one loves one’s self, and to love one’s self as one loves others. It makes life meaningful.

Pounding the living daylights out of someone does not make life meaningful; not in an alley and not on a battlefield. Stealing every last dime from the sick and the old does not make life meaningful; not in a hospital and not from a TV preacher’s stage. Deceiving the innocent and gullible does not make life meaningful; not in the most surreal CGI enhanced advertisement and not in the slickest air-brushed glossy publication. Do you know that most confidence men commit suicide or end up paranoid? Do unto others…

What intelligent, caring human being are confronted with in the neo-liberal value system is nothing less than a legitimacy of greed promoted through self-inflicted blindness to the needs of any and every living thing that might get in the way of profits. It stands to reason then that intelligent and caring human beings should work hard to find the types of things that will work effectively against this tendency to dehumanization inherent in a mass society ruled by neo-liberal values. This is what the mind training in ecological triage skills is all about.

Last week introduced one classification scheme for statements of fact. The categories lend flexibility to the mind by teaching it to become more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. These uncomfortable cognitive states are more easily allowed a place within our characters when their scope is properly restricted to those categories of thought in which they are inherent. Knowing certain types of statements can never obtain to 100% certainty is a good way to check our own thinking and to protect our sanity from those who use underhanded techniques to try and persuade us that this is not the case.

What this means in practice is captured pointedly in the schools of cognitive therapy. This is not the therapy of the unconscious mind that is explored by the depth psychologists. Pursuing meaning among the symbols of myth and dream is life-long task for students of the deep psyche. These cognitive therapies, in contrast, are designed to help people as quickly as possible. They seek a rapid recovery from depression, lack of self confidence, pain management, or whatever their client’s debilitating emotional issues involve. In my experience these cognitive mental health techniques have a complimentary role to play alongside personal researches into the deep. These cognitive insights are rooted in the philosophy of the stoics who stressed that while we are not free to control the world, we are free to some degree in choosing how we will meet that world. These ancient insights have been refined through therapeutic need into practical advice. These insights can act as a key that unlocks many of the mental manacles we are shackled with as good little consumers.

There are a number of names these types of therapies are known by but all share the same fundamental insight about the way our thoughts lead to our emotional experiences and how together they lead to the actions we take. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), invented by Dr. Albert Ellis, is the particular one I will use as I like his rather rascally guru approach. Dr. Aaron T. Beck’s material might be more appealing to others. Mr. Ellis is not for the faint of heart, quick to use the F word and call bullshit bullshit; he is a New Yorker through and through. For me that personality was a perfect delivery mechanism for the message, one that could be summed up as ‘get a spine!’ and ‘stop stinking thinking in its tracks.’ Interested readers should take a look at his over the top How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes, Anything. It delivers the goods.

What these cognitive therapists have found is that when we suffer emotional problems they have a corresponding mental vehicle. The emotions are considered problems because they are proving too extreme for the client to continue living a productive life. Without life events expressing one’s will a person rightly becomes depressed since depression is a signal that what you are doing is not working. You can throw a pity party and bemoan fate till the cows come home but happiness is never found that way, however far down that path you might want to travel. Happiness comes from our sense of competency. We do not need to be genius but we do need to be able to accomplish whatever it is that we consider necessary for our own self respect. What that is remains an on going journey of discovery. It is a lifelong journey of discovery that should, for the most part, keep us enthused to be alive and grateful for each day we get. All too often that enthusiasm is lost in the worries and cares which are rightly born from the tragedies in our lives. What cognitive health entails, then, is not a disregard for bouts of depression when those are needed but a leaning into the wind, setting our rudder by the joy of being alive that is our birthright. We need to learn how to discern between a true need for tears and an unhealthy indulgence in sadness. Cognitive therapy skills can teach us to be childlike, not childish.

What these cognitive sciences have discovered is that we have a set of irrational beliefs as the source of our emotional disturbances. It is not at all hard for those of us who have studied ecology to recognize our societies are currently chock full of irrational beliefs and that they cause us to make decisions as a society that are just down right crazy. Well, that same mechanism plays out in our individual lives as well. When we are disturbed there is some internal dialog that reflects or sustains the extremes under which we are suffering. We gain power over these things to the degree that we recognize how the issues unduly disturbing us are accompanied by thoughts characterized by exaggerations, statements couched in absolutes, or other cognitive errors. We learn to take our skepticism inside and ask our own thoughts, ‘oh really?’

Things are bad. They really are. Things are going to get worse. They really are. It is not the end of the world. It really is not. Our descendants will live in that world. They really will. What we do today matters. It really does.

We will talk about these cognitive skills in coming posts. In this introduction I want to stress how important this particular set of skills can be for those who are willing to contemplate ecological reality. I sit and consider the end of our existing harvesting of ocean stocks in the next few decades, a simple extrapolation from today’s trends in global overfishing. I allow myself to feel the implications and feel that it is a bad thing we are currently engaged in making come to pass. It is critical that I do not exaggerate if I am to remain bound to the truth of what I am contemplating. It is not likely to be the end of the future stocks centuries hence, or the end of all the different species, nor even the first and worst die off earth’s precious ocean has ever experienced or will yet again. Now I have provided a safe container for my contemplations. Now I have a good chance of grounding myself in my own knowledge, refusing to pretend I do not understand what I do about the world and our activities in it, yet at the same time refusing to give in to unmitigated despair.

Mind Training

There is much more to say about the world-soul introduced last week. In particular the role of animals was not even mentioned yet is a substantial part of earth’s sentience. I hope to circle around to this subject again but today we are going to shift gears a bit. We are on the hunt for some clarification around the relationships between truth, belief, character, fundamentalism, and mental agility. There is a tradition of mind training in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. Today I’d like to introduce a bit of a western spin on the same idea.

Any statement made can be classified as belonging to a logical category. Some might belong to more than one category depending on how they are interpreted. I just mention this in passing but it can become a crucial key for proper understanding at times. These logical categories include:

True or False – It is 90 degrees outside right now.
More or Less Likely – It’s very likely the Larson C ice sheet will break off this year.
Meaningless – Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
Indeterminate – The god who made this universe loves war.

The first step in this western mind training is to simply recognize that these different categories exist. It is like having a number of different tools on your cognitive tool belt so that there is a good chance the right one will be at hand when it is needed. Many people are confused, and many messages are deliberately designed to be confusing, about the type of truth claims that are possible. Keeping in mind this full spectrum of possibilities can aid us in our quest to minimize our ignorance.

Without awareness of this whole collection it is not possible to identify that which is the real mystery in our midst, that which many label god. In the typically complimentary way of the psyche, the only way to get a handle on just what the human mind can know is to become real clear about what it cannot. To see the mystery we need to remove the mystification. To that end its worth pointing out the important characteristic of the meaningless statement which is that it was designed by Noam Chomsky to be syntactically correct but semantically meaningless. A whole lot of messages over our airwaves amount to little more than this when analyzed. As a reminder those who need to strengthen their understanding of likelihood are encouraged to peek at the probability material on this site.

It is, however, the last category of indeterminate statements that is the interesting one which we are going to explore in this post. Be prepared for some rather dense psychological material and groping speculation.

People are free to assert any number of things for which the only proper response is “could be.” The rub is that very often the person making said statement believes in it as if it were as real as rocks. Other people doubting its veracity then become construed as threatening to their position. Why? I think the answer deals with a fundamental difference in the position people make towards knowledge. Some people are certain they know the truth. Religious, scientific, psychological, whatever the field, these persons adhere to certainty. Their position is related to extroversion and the Western theological tradition of making positive statements about what god is. God is Love we are taught, God is X is the pattern. Certainly the term God however, if it means anything at all, points to that existential mystery at the heart of existing that far exceeds full human understanding. Granting that, whenever we assert God is X we should immediately add ‘and not X.’ If we say God is fair and just we stay real by adding but not as humans are fair and just. This is related to the apophatic Eastern theological traditions and introversion. This represents a different core psychological position persons can take towards truth. These people are not certain they know the truth but are quite certain about what they believe to be the truth, even while recognizing it is possible that they are mistaken.

Statements that can be true or false conclusively are the domain of deductive logic or direct observation. Inductive logic allows drawing generalized conclusions by reasoning along the lines of the most or least probable. The meaningless statements exist outside the bounds of logic and serve other masters than verbal truth such as deception or aesthetics or simply a poetic frolic with language engaged in for the fun of it. Which leaves us with the final category. There is something about the indeterminate category which causes a rather profound difference between how people approach the world and each other.

My suggestion is that their positions revolve around an individual’s understanding which is where the bits and bytes of knowledge are linked to what we human beings find meaningful. Though the knowledge is collective, the interpretation of it is resolutely individual. What something means to us is what we can only fully encounter by taking account of our dreams about it, how our perspective about it has changed over the long decades of a lifetime, and how this understanding of ours has ultimately affected our behavior. It takes all of this to account for what we find meaningful or not because it takes all of this to provide the details of our own stories which differ from anyone else’s.

Understanding gains this cognitive feature because it is built, at least in part (and often the most important part) by using symbols. Symbols turn their face to us but their backsides proceed into the unplumbed depths. Mind’s interface with will, the source of the bodymind’s movements and desires, includes encounters with non-conceptual energies from the biological processes involved. We know what the flag means, for example, as a stand-in for a country, its people and their history. It is also well known how a country’s flag can move men and nations by emotions both noble and base. This nature of symbolism as the simultaneous cognitive and physiological expression of our individual understanding lends itself to the profound commitments we often see people making to them. In a person’s individual experience as it unfolded in a particular culture numerous events made impressions on their character, laying tracks in the bodymind. This is how our understanding grows using the currency of symbolism.

For understanding to grow it must change. Often, due to the nature of what we as individual’s find meaningful being anchored in our hearts, in our physiology, such maturing changes are painful and difficult. There is an unrest in the body that accompanies this dis-quite in the mind when a person’s understanding is shifting. Though we can learn through this experience to be more tolerant of ambiguity and the unknown, nothing wholly removes its sting.

We experience all of this internally. The face we show the world, the persona asserting our place, may or may not be affected by the process. Whether or not it will seems to be determined by a number of things, including the size of the shift in understanding taking place. A chemistry student learning about programmed cell death is likely altering the arrangement of her knowledge less than someone suddenly learning her trusted business partner is a crook and murderer. Still, it is not just a matter of how large the changes are. Some people handle torture and others cannot handle no air conditioning, to be a bit flippant. An unknowable element of character, fate, destiny, or karma is also at play.

If the persona is affected the rest of the world will know. Public conversions of Republicans to Democrats or Independents are simple examples. Now our reputations are on the line once the persona is involved. We don’t need our lives shared in TV coverage to feel that pressure as friends and family play the same role regardless. If we change our minds too radically we expose ourselves, revealing our most vulnerable spots. We state we were previously foolish but now, so we are claiming, we have become wise. Only the shameless can easily endure public exposure of their own personal foolishness when the subjects involved are essential to what things mean among us socially. So the persona is tempted to clamp down and this is the process that creates what has been called character armor. This armor is a physiological tenseness that never gets to relax; it is how we always have our guard up. If we allow this process of shifting understanding to go through to completion without clamping down, even though it hurts, we eventually arrive at a place of congruity between our inner understanding as our bodymind experiences it and the expression of such in the world. Such conditions promote flexibility and suppleness as both physiologically and cognitively we are able to tense or relax as needed. Recall the point made earlier about our own culture’s lack of contentment in the post about Emotional Systems.

My hypothesis is that the armoring approach leaves the persona rather high and dry. Full bodied expressions of will are not characteristic of such people. They often seem disconnectedly intellectual, religious, or whatnot: head in the clouds but no feet on the ground. Here is where the distinction between the core psychological positions seem to have their nexus. The weakened persona tries to compensate for its handicap by asserting certainty not in the beliefs it holds but in the object of those beliefs. By this trick the person(a) seems to remove themselves and be involved in no more than objective statements of fact.

The education with the most profound affects on our understanding, mind training if you will, involve dissolving the character armor. It is a liberation from an untenable position we were tensely holding onto in our ignorance. Seeing mistaken certainty is simultaneously seeing the nature of beliefs. Letting go of the certainty is reclaiming your individuality by recognizing the role of your story in the shaping of your understanding. I think this might be related to wisdom. Harry Wilber in Understandable Jung: The Personal Side of Jungian Psychology has a great sentence capturing what this is all about. The context is his coming to the end of the Jungian analysis all Jungian analysts must go through themselves before they are considered ready to help others. This is from the section entitled ‘Sooner or Later, You Will Have To Become Your Own Analyst.’

“The Wise Old Man I had been talking to
had become myself – wise man, old fool.”

Compassion opens the inner eye of conscience that lives in the depths, far beyond the conscience society’s mores and the persona use for guiding behavior. This is our innermost understanding we are talking about here. Through practice we learn to become certain about what we believe yet remain open to revising these beliefs. We recognize and honor that these beliefs are rooted in the deepest understanding we have about what it means to be a self aware mortal human being – due to the way we have experienced it. They embody our story, a story wonderfully and mysteriously unique from beginning to end. We recognize what is real and true about what is real and true for us. In our unknowing we allow all sentient beings the same freedom because we comprehend the inner world characteristics of the bodymind through our own experience of subjectivity and objectivity.

Cruelty on the Cross

As social primates how others react to us is extremely important. Our expressions of ourselves through word and deed are self revealing, leaving us vulnerable to a cruel word or act from others. Since trust cannot be naively extended to strangers, we rely on the defense mechanism of the persona, the mask we wear when we are just going through the motions, as we say. Each of us is able to cover our uniqueness in a cloak of collectively defined characteristics; the jock, the nerd, the rebel, the flirt, the hard hearted businessman, and the cold calculating player of real politic, to name a few. Whatever our chosen mask, for most of us the primary personas are molded into our nervous systems by the time we leave high school. As adults we become adapt at shifting masks as needed.

When the environment is safe and secure, when we can trust the ones around us not to hurt us cruelly, we are able to relax and, as we say, be ourselves. We are fed and nourished in these times as the reflection of ourselves in another’s eyes makes us real; they confirm our own perceptions and expressions. The ear and the tongue evolved together: we are story tellers at heart and love to share with one another. The smile is the ticket to the heartstrings and it plays a fine song, given the chance. We humans laugh, and when the laughter is free of malice, its sound is pure praise celebrating this moment, just as it is. Joyful moments shared with others are memories every human being holds dear.

In the abusive home this environment of safety is missing, so those within its walls are unable to receive the nurturance required by mammals of the social primate flavor. In an overly competitive society, such as ours, there is no external security to be found either. Arguably, everyone in such a society suffers some degree of self alienation, everyone is abused by the worship of cruelty as the final arbiter of power. In our fear, surrounded as we are by so many threats and dangers, we find it hard to take off our masks; to relax, safe and content. The danger is that then our lives can become little more than circus shows, staged for one another but not lived with one another.

The point, of course, is to live an authentic life. To use the masks, understand them and their role, but never to confuse the mask with the living flesh of the face it covers.

This, I think, is what the Jesus story and the crucifixion is teaching. That is a human face on that cross. It asks us to have compassion on the suffering being displayed. Which is stronger for you, on which will you ultimately place your faith: the cruelty of empire or the compassion of flesh? The Gospels provide just enough detail that we recognize an individual within their pages. On the cross this individual suffers the cruelty of torture, exposing the vulnerability of the flesh, but even more so that of the heart. On the cross Jesus wears no mask. Reality – this cosmic, mysterious thing made by an unknown – is its own balm, a harsh taskmaster at times, but not nearly as cruel as mankind can be to itself when we choose cruelty instead of love. This icon of Christianity teaches us torture hurts, it is wrong. It is a stake in the emotional ground. It may have additional religious meaning also but what I want to point out is it is much more pedestrian than that. It says: this is real, this torture of other human beings, this action is real. And this action is wrong.

Emotion and values are inseparably linked. In our pursuit of value-free greed, we as a people have not had much respect for the inner, subjective life of the emotions. Animals, women and children were all thought to be ruled by their feelings, and hence lesser beings. To accept that what other people feel matters, that how I make them feel matters, is to invite a whole host of values captured in the universal Golden Rule. These threaten the values being used to prop up this consumer society in which status, as conferred by wealth and fame, is held up as the alternative ideal. When the powerful use this view to argue that the values of war are as serviceable for a society as those of compassion, they commit, in my mind, a crime against the truth. We cannot remake ourselves over into the image of our machines; cold, calculating robots capable of pushing the nuclear button without flinching. We are not our own creators.

To be human is to be, first, a mammal. The line of mammals is characterized by a unique trait: they show extended care for their young. From this quite real biological, emotional, and cognitive experience attachment bonds are formed. Mammals come to express care and compassion among themselves their whole life long. Second, we humans are primate mammals, and social primates at that. This means we have evolved around the need to need each other. The individual’s biological, emotional, and cognitive structures are attuned to reading and responding to social signals from others in our tribe.

Christianity is catholic; a message for the species is in the icon of the cross, just as it is in the icon of the meditating Buddha. The cross asks what do you, personally, choose to do about the fact human beings are capable of inflicting torture upon one another? That is the psychological maypole around which we are built. In the icon of the corpus on the cross the mystery is openly displayed. The psyche aligns itself either towards the pole of ‘I will not torture another sentient being whatever the cost,’ or not.

It is important to be clear we are talking about torture: the deliberate desire to inflict maximum pain through cruelty. Arguably all killing is suspect from compassion’s point of view, as the Jains have it, but how can there be an absolute rule when protectors need to execute evil when necessary? Regardless, what soldiers typically do on the battlefield is not the same violation of the integrity of another being’s subjectivity torture entails. Only acts of sexual and sever psychological abuse begin to position themselves on the spectrum of ‘soul violation’ that ends in torture.

The Gospel is about a man who learns to call this creator-mystery, this cosmic force of deep time planted on earth from out of deep space, by the most intimate form of address possible. Though Christianity typically speaks about god the father, Jesus addressed god as daddy, the child’s loving address, as if to teach that this cosmic force by which we were created is to become personalized by our fully becoming human. A task, I might add, no one who has ever lived has ultimately failed at. The teaching is we are not orphans in an uncaring universe, for the very human love we share witnesses otherwise.

Torture rightly frightens the human animal. And so, in the Christian mythology, we are taught by ‘god’ to watch how people use this ability to be so cruel to one another. It is ‘his’ revelation. That cruelty, the teaching goes, kills the god among men.

These evolved traits around compassion are as real in the realm of human experience as gravity is. Our biology, emotions, and cognitions bear witness to our evolved inheritance as mammals of the social primate variety. The devil among us is not a supernatural, magical bogey man. It is the cruelty by which we humans can be lead astray, by which we lose our way.