Ego and Awe – Practical Mysticism #002

Next up – maybe: a dive into awe and the outdoors. What is it about showing up in a natural environment with a human nervous system that has a positive impact? (Or, at least, a positive impact on the human:-)
– me, part #001

I guess the key word in that was ‘maybe’:-)

There are three interconnected concepts that frame up the story I want to tell. In rough terms, they are ego, instinct, and awe. All feel connected to me as ideas circling around something that might be called access to a bigger self. But, also to potential groundings of identity.

(This is not to be confused with the Bigger Us that connects outward to what ML King calls a ‘blessed community.’)

As per usual, I’m having trouble unbraiding and crisping up my three framing concepts–a great case in point of why it takes me forever to get something written. The issue: crisping up any of these, impacts my understanding and formulation of the others, which in turn, feeds back and alters the starting point. Rinse and repeat. Until I throw in the towel and hit publish.

Well, I’m going to throw in the towel right off the bat. Brother Skip once told me he was convinced all the bolts were there…but that they were only on hand tight. I like that. I’ve vowed to use the blog to write more casually and let the ideas mature as we go. Hopefully, I’ll get the bolts on hand tight. Lord knows how many more passes it will take from there.

We’ll start with Ego.

A good enough theory of ego

  • Starting with ego means we start with the Freuds, Sigmund then Anna. Ego is pretty much defined by its defenses which are mostly a response to unavoidable childhood sexual trauma. An example of an ego defense is projection, i.e., discomfort in one’s unacknowledged dark traits is projected out as dislike or irritation with someone else who seems to exhibit those traits. The unconscious, of course, is where all the scary stuff lives.
  • Jung’s unconscious can be much less fraught than Freud’s. It’s the repository of the excluded, the inferior, and the undeveloped– things you are bad at, ashamed of, etc., and not just trauma. Also, sex isn’t the main driver, and trauma isn’t a given.
  • Jung adds a second big component. The ego creates directable energy and attention by walling off the ebb and flow of unconscious reactions, which can unfocus and distract us. (Look, squirrels!)
  • Further, the paradigm of classical Jungian thought is that this ability not to be taken over by whatever stray impulse arises has been gained relatively recently, i.e., subsequent to us becoming anatomically homo sapiens. Humans accomplished this by developing a psychic structure that provides a barrier against the unconscious. The classic paradigm further states that the barrier mechanisms have become too rigid, and the task now is reconnecting with the unconscious.*1
  • Last, I think I should also throw in a concept that I identify with Buddhism: ego’s fear of annihilation: that white-knuckle fear that makes even a little ego loss or loss of control feel like death.

Okay, that was a long way around to a ‘good enough’ theory of ego.

In summary, we have a psychological structure that acts to include things in and exclude other things out (all the things are us, of course); that maintains barriers and defenses to make that happen; and that can too rigid to our detriment.

Expanded self

My thesis here is that awe and wonder are a small ‘pop’ that expands our acknowledged self. Something that was ‘outside’ egoland is now ‘inside.’ Further, this same mechanism leads into the mystic, as it were. Or rather, wonder is a bit of the mystic touching down in everyday life.

We can use Zen koans as an additional example. They pose a problem not solvable with everyday tools and are traditionally solved with a pop that signifies a change in the student, not the correct answer per se.

Even our well-known ability to solve problems by sleeping on them is relevant. The ego is relaxed to a bit player, more of us is brought to bear, something that was outside is now inside, and the self is just a tiny bit bigger.

Containers

It occurs to me now that we need another component if we talking about awe/wonder in the context of the wider sweep of ‘non-ordinary states’*2 and ego. As framed up by our ‘good enough theory of ego’, the core concept is sidestepping the walls ego built. But the ego has a purpose. We need to get past ego without obliterating it or freaking it the fuck out.

The protocol for psychedelic sessions beginning with Grof and Leary and continuing through contemporary John Hopkins mushroom sessions, is to emphasize set (mental state/expectations) and setting (the physical space and guide.)

That’s missing a piece I call ‘container.’ In the above, the container is the assumption that your guide is competent and benign. Container is the wider envelope. Sangha can be the container. Growing up in a culture that gives 15-year-olds monastic experience is a container. For me, movement in nature is itself a container, along with community and music.

Next up (maybe): a good enough theory of instinct.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share this.

Feedback

I had some interesting discussions as a result of the last post in this series…in particular with Paula, my running buddy on much of this whether she’s aware of that or not. Here are some resources as a result.

footnotes

*1 – More: this classical Jungian story holds that ego development arose at the same time as the patriarchies and that the ego is experienced as masculine while the excluded is thus seen as feminine This part is a little sketchy in a Joseph Campbell ‘all heroes are male’ sort of way. Both Jung and Campbell use a pattern of myth called the ‘night sea hero’…Jung as a story of individual maturation, and Campbell as a story of cultural advancement. The use of gender here is highly debatable, but, on the other hand, it is easy to argue that patriarchal thinking is a pathology. Might be worth a future discussion.

*2 – ‘Non-ordinary’ has become the standard description of non-ego-centered mental states. I don’t like it. First, many of these states are more ordinary than assumed…they just don’t have much acknowledgment in our culture. Second, the objective here is to make them ordinary. Third, by most definitions of nonordinary states, there is a very common ordinary one caused by alcohol consumption–which might become less common if a better one came along.

Awe Shucks – Practical Mysticism #001

Wikipedia: A peak experience is an altered state of consciousness characterized by euphoria, often achieved by self-actualizing individuals. The concept was originally developed by Abraham Maslow in 1964, who describes peak experiences as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” There are several unique characteristics of a peak experience, but each element is perceived together in a holistic manner that creates the moment of reaching one’s full potential.

Peak Experience

Back in the early 70s, inspired by Maslow’s work, I was interviewing almost everyone I knew for a psychology research paper. (Psychology was my college major.) I’d read to my ‘subjects’ Maslow’s description of peak experiences, then ask a series of questions about whether they’d had such experiences, how they viewed them, and whether that had led to any noticeable behavioral changes.

Watch out. Folks will try and convert you at a very vulnerable time: right after you’ve been saved!

The whole thing was tremendous fun. I had fascinating conversations. Best, I became a go-to person for discussions of intense, weird, and/or transformative experiences.

One Monday, I received reports from two friends who both attended weekend events that triggered a ‘classic’ white light experience. Their descriptions were pretty much identical: white light, bliss, doubt being lifted, ‘heart strangely warmed.’

Both had then dedicated themselves to the event organizer’s practice and suggested rather urgently that I check it out!

The kicker: one had gone to an evangelical Christian rally…one of the early Jesus Freaks events… and the other an event  with the Guru Maharaj Ji.

My conclusions after all this:

  • Watch out. Folks will try and convert you at a very vulnerable time: right after you’ve been saved!
  • Awe and ‘mystical’ experiences are human birthrights whether you view them as biochemistry or the grace of God or both.
  • But, also, based on reading Maslow and, more so, others like Evelyn Underhill, William James, and Aldous Huxley, there are mystic traditions that can provide some conceptual grounding when the going gets weird. Things often get a bit unhinged otherwise.

I Fart Therefore I Am

Quite honestly, I chose the psychology major because it required no courses that met before 1:15 pm. I was very interested in psychology, but this was the heyday of BF Skinner and various flavors of behaviorism, and that’s a lot of what they were teaching. Not all that engaging.

Luckily the Religion Department was teaching Jung (along with Buddhism and Taoism), and the Philosophy Department included a bit of Freud in the mix along with the opportunity to read folks like Husserl. Both, in other words, studied folks that were asking the type of questions I was asking.

The questions?

All were the result of a bit of an identity crisis. My questions started with ‘What is a meaningful grounding for action despite the risk of unintended negative consequences?’ and progressed to ‘How is meaning generated?’ and ‘What’s at the root of needing meaning, anyway?’

In other words, what is this ‘meaning’ of which you speak:-)?

Quite honestly the Western classic, ‘I think therefore I am’ seemed like a particularly lame place to start building an answer. My counter-example, probably cribbed from somewhere, is why not ‘I fart therefore I am.’ Or any one of a near-endless set of parallel formulations.

Very long story made very short, I ended up with, ‘There is awareness therefore I am’. Thinking has no special privilege. But where does this realization get us?

Awe and ‘mystical’ experiences are human birthrights…

First, if you take awareness instead of thinking as the irreducible root of further philosophy, the project shifts towards something Hindu philosophers and their offspring, followers of the Buddha, have been working on for a few millennia in both abstract and concrete terms. (Husserl ends up starting somewhere similar but lacks the millennia of subsequent development.) There are a whole lot of systems of thought to scaffold up from there…but again, where does that get us?

Second, that is where awe comes in. My answer is that there needs to be something in awareness itself, rather than in some configuration of ideas about awareness, that can make it a ground for meaning. Awe adds an emotional, some would say spiritual component.

This is a good stopping point. These blog posts are intended to be short. There’s a lot more that could be said, but I’ll save that for future articles. I do have a long discussion of what I believe are the underlying dynamics of awe and its bigger sisters on Medium.

Cheap Awe

Scientific third-party research was sparked by Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ and, in large part, debunked it–particularly as a hierarchy where some needs have to be met in order to enable others. Research on peaks, on the other hand, languished along with research into psychedelics. Both are now undergoing a reboot. A major influence in the study of awe is UC Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and his Greater Good Science Center. (See The Science of Awe, 2018.)

This story, “Awe might be our most undervalued emotion. Here’s how to help children find it”, from the Washington Post is actually a primer on accessing the experience regardless of age.

Awe and nature are my jam. Here’s a formula that works for me.

  • Go outside in nature. A tree-lined street might do.
  • Walk around.
  • Pay attention. Try not to daydream too much; that’s the tough part:-)

Even if you don’t trip over into awe, it’s good for you.

Science’s Newest Miracle Drug Is Free

Next up – maybe: a dive into awe and the outdoors. What is it about showing up in a natural environment with a human nervous system that has a positive impact? (Or, at least, a positive impact on the human:-)

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Thanks for reading!

good tribe / bad tribe – reverend al mix

You can read a prettier version of this on Medium.  Please ‘Clap’ if you do.

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Love and Hate

We are hard-wired for deep empathy with our ‘brothers and sisters’…even brothers and sisters well outside narrow family connections.

We are hard-wired to hate and even kill anyone we feel threatens us and our people. Empathy freezes. Antipathy switches on.

The same neurotransmitter, oxytocin, is likely central to both reactions.

Continue reading good tribe / bad tribe – reverend al mix

Meaning of Meaning Pt 1 – Introduction

Introduction.

[[This is an experiment. Generally I write and edit and write and edit and edit some more and then publish. I’m working on this in public; parts will probably only be comprehensible to me while that’s happening..]]

I’ve been sporadically preoccupied with the big Why Bother questions since high school: What’s worth doing? Why bother to act? What justifies itself in the face of the imminent heat death of the universe. (Well, maybe not always the latter.)

This has lead through the decades to a slow motion analysis of the meaning of meaning.

My initial thoughts were shaped by three books I found in the paperback rack in my father’s drug store when I was a high school freshman: Alan Watt’s Psychotherapy East and West, RD Laing’s Politics of Experience, and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections.

It should be obvious from what follows which one of the three had the biggest influence.

I will still argue that Jung is inappropriately dismissed as unscientific. His basic mechanism of the Self, particularly as elaborated by his collaborator Erich Neumann, is an auto-regulatory system, an explicitly compensatory mechanism, that kicks in when the personality becomes lopsided and fore-grounds and integrates needed but excluded and/or under-developed aspects of the person.

With that introduction. Here goes….

(Quick links: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Meaning of Meaning Pt 2 – Much Assembly Required

Life is not a matter of holding good cards but of playing a poor hand well. – Robert Lewis Stevenson

Intrinsic Meaning

Identity

Paragraph form: You are a bag of parts; much assembly required. That’s it. Human beings are a genetically randomized collection of traits. There is no guarantee that the bag of parts you received is optimized to fit together or even optimized to work at all. We have a cognitive bias to assume we’re a unity. (It is very likely that there’s a strong ‘instinctual’ force that seeks to bind us together. Unfortunately, that task is not guaranteed to be easy.)
Outline form: Starting set: Identity
  1. Human beings are a genetically randomized collection of traits. You are a bag of part.
  2. The upside, there is no one else exactly like you. Human beings are genetically unique even without elements of culture and personal biography.
    1. Probably. Estimates on the number of the human genotypes range from near 1 trillion to 70+ trillion unique possibilities. If you exclude non-viable combinations, I suspect that this number would drop singificantly. But, of course, the impact of culture, experience including birth order, etc, pump uniqueness back up.
  3. There is no guarantee this set of traits will work well for you; it essentially presents you with your unique bag of parts and assembly is left as an exercise. The more an organism is open to learning and culture, the looser the knit.
  4. We have a cognitive and emotional bias to assume we’re a unity. This may not be superficial but, particularly in the emotional component, may itself be an evolutionary mechanism aiming at knitting it all together.

Meaning

Paragraph form: Meaning is a human activity. We act as if it is a discovery and, although it presents itself as found, it is built not found. Meaning is fundamentally a social construct and, if all goes smoothly, it provides reasonably stress free guidance to the individual. If that fails, the individual is forced back upon whatever resources they have or can discover.

Outline form: Starting Set: Meaning.

  1. Meaning is a human activity; not a property of the ‘external’ world.
  2. There are both individual and social components to meaning construction. There is not necessarily a single system.
  3. Meaning is most easily constellated by the ‘tribe.’ This can be authentically in the individual’s best interest…we are fundamentally tribal animals…but it is also the mechanism where our energy is re-purposed for other interest’s projects.
    1. In a narrow contexts (a company, a battle) connection and progress constellate out in a way that easily can provide direction.
    2. (From a certain perspective all meaning might fit this description.)
    3. Corporations succeed by harnessing this tribal energy.
    4. Games provide a parallel with simple goals and clear conditions for their achievement. Every game can be considered an experiment in social engineering.
  4. ‘Individual’ meaning is a different process and is frequently driven by the failure of social meaning.
    1. Social meaning as a determining force for individuals can break down either through cultural collapse or shift or through a strong mismatch between the individual and the surrounding culture.

Contradiction

Paragraph form: Apparently clashing values are a problem only if they lead to contradictory impulses to action. There are often schisms through our belief systems. Some derive from personal biography, some from our culture, some from the nature of our species or any embodied being in a context of forward moving time and physical space. It is only when we find ourselves actively on both sides of a schism, that we are challenged. It is only then that we are given the opportunity to seek/forge deeper meaning. There is, of course, no guarantee that our solutions will be totally successful.

Outline form: Contradiction:

  1. Our individual and cultural value systems are frequently riddled with apparently conflicting values.
  2. An apparent conflict between parts is not necessarily a conflict.
    1. Take two ideas as an example. ‘The King is generous’ and ‘The King is cruel’, considered as being in opposition are no particular problem unless the impulse “Kill the King” is added to the mix. Now one belief supports and one opposes the action. Until a contradiction is activated, it is not necessarily a contradiction at all.
  3. In my experience, our belief systems are riddled with similar contradictions.
    1. Some of those could be considered personal, some cultural, some existential.
    2. The personal contradictions imposed by the demands of job, family, etc, tend to need resolution first with the cultural following similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  4. Contradictions might be unresolvable.
    1. They might be based on accurate observations of a complex phenomena
    2. The world might not only be stranger than we understand but stranger than we can understand. Our contradictory descriptions, no matter how rigorously developed, might be the best we can do with an limited tool set. Modern physics might be an example of this problem.
    3. There is a tendency to retreat from the painful context that might force a search for individually-driven meaning generation into cheap social meaning, e.g. games, work, spectator sports, etc.

(Quick links: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4)

Meaning of Meaning Pt 3 – Building Soul

Building Soul

  1. Given the context of “some assembly required” and likely contradiction and internal conflict, it is reasonable to hypothesize a system that works to knit together and harmonize the components of human personality.
    1. Jung hypothesized this specifically and called it the archetype of Self.
    2. Jung’s Self had the power to channel conflicting components towards synthesized whole. His interest in the mandala reflects an interest in systems that put many components into a patterned whole.
  2. Confronting our contradictions, we generally work from the personal ‘down’ into the collective. Unless your culture is in the midst of a open crisis, the demands of our personal biography trump cultural schisms. Once the personal is reconciled, however, the cultural issues come to the fore.
    1. The downward movement is what Jung called Building Soul and he defines the Soul as a organ of the psyche that gives depth by connecting the individual to deeper collective currents.
    2. The division between personal and collective is, of course, complex and multi-layered…and somewhat arbitrary. The personal is simply an instance of the collective and the collective is the sum of the personal. Conflicts and contradictions do not exist in the abstract no matter how abstractly we work with them. They are always embodied.
  3. When our personal contradictions span emerging or existing cultural divides, the work to heal and harmonize can gain significant additional intensity (often painful intensity) but, also, the work to heal and harmonize can feel powerfully meaningful.
    1. Jung and Campbell described this as the Hero’s Journey
    2. The first stage is often individual crisis and confusion. The present is in some manner intolerable but the future is clouded and the hero must depart from the known world and seek the vision or tools or guidance that allows him/her to move forward.
    3. This is the most individual form of meaning generation: the puzzles are often collective (contradictions in our culture), occasionally individual (warring traits) but the solutions are always sparked by individual blood, sweat, tears, and imagination.
  4. Jung’s Individuation vs Cambell’s Hero’s Journey
    1. Jung focuses on the introverted side: internal contradictions (generated by either personal contradictions or the ‘introjection’ of cultural divides) are resolved into awareness. Hero stories are about that process.
    2. Campbell focuses on the extroverted side. Some rupture sends the hero out to triumph and return and revitalize the culture.

(to follow – Extrinsic (tribal): [[under construction]])

(Quick links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4)

Meaning of Meaning Pt 4 – Personal Note

My own tale of a life disrupted and rebuilt and the roots of my fascination with meaning, myth and story are told on my story-trading site, OutInUnder:

My Life in Stories: Intro to the ‘Story of Stories’ Conversation

My Life in Stories: Lessons Learned

(Quick links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

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