Shadow Masters

plato-cavePlato, in his allegory of the cave, gives a perfect illustration of how we can become captive by illusions.   As a result of believing the shadows on the wall to be true reality, the world becomes a fabrication, like the old tale of the Emperor’s invisible clothes.   Like the fundamental assumptions that society believes often without question or in many instances fails to even notice, the world’s illusions seem to have snuck up on us slowly, so much so that it appears that we have lost the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is simply a shadow on the wall.  What is most frightening, though, is the level of ferocity (even violence) with which we as individuals and as a society have chosen to hold on to illusions, rather than recognize, grieve, and surrender the deceptions we believed and then move upward and outward into the light.

It may appear to be the greatest of arrogance for me to tell you that you’ve been staring at shadows your whole life.  So I won’t say it.  Of course if your life is not hunky dory then you’ll have to draw your own conclusions as to the reason why, and let me suggest that the list begins with the primary source…yourself.   The only claim of expertise made here will be from what I’ve learned as a fellow observer, one with the added vantage point of standing in the middle.  Not only is there an equidistant view from where I stand, if I’ve been lulled into believing in shadows, the chances are pretty good that others have been lulled into believing them too.  So if you see room for improvement in your life, then take a chance and read on.  I won’t even attempt to tell you what illusions you may be staring at in shadow form.  The starting point is to simply admit that you may have them.  It will be your job to figure out what those shadows are.  And let me tell you that when you do that, the chains dissolve away.  There is no trick to escape, no enormous locks; it all centers on personal choice.  Those first few steps in relative darkness are the hardest because it demands that you have faith in something that isn’t known yet.  It’s after you take those first steps and go outside that you will understand the difference; the light makes it impossible to transfer one shadow for another, they are lost forever.  But take heed to this warning: the process of escape usually really sucks.  The pain is a necessary part, but like a painkiller I’ll try to dull it a bit.  If you were able to accept the challenge and let go of all the rules you live by and live in cosmic anarchy for a while, then you’re already 10 steps ahead of everyone else.

One of the rules that I’ve adopted (post cleaning my own cosmic closet) is that things are not always what they appear to be, so making rigid judgments about any given situation doesn’t even factor into the movie in my head; when I have done so in the past, the result is most often catastrophic.   Most people are aware on some level that what they see is often colored by who they are and what has happened to them thus far in life.  What trips me up most often is not that things are something other than what they appear to be, but that I hold on to the judgments that I create about them (often rigidly) even in the face of knowing better.  A shadow is a shadow, regardless of how articulate or insightful modern commentary is in trying to justify the truth of its existence.  Real change happens in the heart.  Any person can say they believe in something over and over, but if their heart isn’t willing to follow along, especially in terms of their behavior, then the chains will never be let loose making it impossible to move out of the darkness.

As an observer, besides using my native good judgment in determining at any given time when I’m living in the land of illusion, there is also a process I use taken from the rules of Evidence in the American Judicial System.  One of the most basic rules of evidence is that only evidence that is relevant may be permitted, that is only that material which has the tendency to help prove the truth of the issue at hand.  The most obvious relevant evidence would be something like a murder weapon or an eye witness to a crime.  Even when evidence is relevant, though, it may still be excluded if the value of the evidence is outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues or misleading the jury.  Other forms of evidence like hearsay: a statement made outside of the courtroom but is offered in court to prove the truth of the matter asserted; or character evidence: using a person’s character to prove that person acted in conformity to that character, may not be allowed because of the risk of unfair prejudice. The bottom line is that the rules of evidence are very restrictive because those who decide the case whether it be the judge or a jury deserve the kind of evidence that best leads to the truth.

Unfortunately, this kind of filtering isn’t necessarily applied when it comes to dispelling many of the illusions our culture lives by today.  Look at how most of us receive information, especially from television.  It is common to utilize deeply biased and second and third hand information to inform the public about an issue.  It is also more and more common to attack someone’s character as a means of uncovering “the truth,” or to diminish the validity of their perspective.  It appears that the means by which we prove the truth in our lives would never hold muster in a court room.  Is it because the truth by which we live is less important than the truth that will prove us guilty or innocent?

There are three things that I have found helpful in destroying the illusions that pop up in my life: 1) coming to terms with the judgments of my heart, 2) steering away from that kind of evidence that distracts me from the truth and 3) refusing to engage in “king of the hill” behavior, meaning defending with such vigor those judgments/illusions I have that truth is forced to take the back seat to winning the argument.  Have you ever had an argument with someone and fought to the death even though you knew full well that you were wrong?  Just wanting to be right never got me anywhere, whereas shifting my thinking from a win/lose mentality to an exploration of what new information I may gain, has usually gotten me everywhere.  Take a moment to listen to your innate good judgment and see if there is truth in what others are saying.  Feeling super defensive is a sure sign that it is a crucial time to listen.  Ego thrives on illusion.  I’ve also learned, the hard way, that truth never prevails when the impetus to present an idea is rooted in fear (even if the fear is as simple as not wanting to lose the upper hand).

Although chances are also great that the other person doesn’t know what they are talking about either and are also just trying to win, when you remove the competitive element either the wind will completely blow out of the conversation (being there is nothing left for the other person to conquer) or you will find out the other person is really trying to make a point.  There may even be the not so rare occasion when they weren’t listening to you anyway and just like to hear themselves talk.  Even in these situations discovery may happen.   The focus should not be on the other person, but on what your heart tells you in response to them.  Face it change is hard…in Plato’s allegory, there were plenty of people who wanted to kill the messenger, the one who escaped the chains and wanted to share his expanded frame of reference.  We often shoot down new information if it requires us to shift beyond what we believe at any given point.  Holding onto shadows may be easier, but then one must accept the kind of darkness that will forever shield one from true illumination.  Faith in light beyond the darkness is the only escape.

Native Good Judgement

10026_CommonSenseThe phrase “common sense” means native good judgment and is derived from the Greek koinē aesthēsis which refers to the total perception of the five senses.  If you have senses, then those of you who read this have, potentially anyway, as much common sense as anybody else.  The problem lies in the execution.  Like any other gift, native good judgment must be exercised. Over my lifetime, my mother and father constantly challenged me and my siblings to use good common sense, and it’s never been easy considering the world we live in.  I never forgot those simple edicts that came from my parents: “If you eat all that Halloween candy, you will get sick”; “If you wait until the last-minute to study, you probably won’t really understand the material and not do well on the test”; “If you treat your siblings like crap, crap is what you will get in return.”; “The most important lessons always contain some form of difficulty.”  Those pearls of wisdom created a strong base for much of my decision-making as an adult, (that and scoring the 97th percentile in an aptitude test measuring common sense…which I’ve bragged about before).  Common sense should also never be confused with intelligence-it is not the same thing.  Some of the most intelligent people I know actually seem to be lacking in common sense.  Like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, they really should give diplomas for that kind of smarts.  The scarecrow discovered that the only way to increase the wisdom of one’s native good judgment is not by always doing what one is told, but by figuring it out on ones own and actually taking personal responsibility for those choices that go awry.

Taking personal responsibility for the choices one makes and developing common sense are intimately connected.   Unfortunately one can’t develop without the other.   Based on what I observe in the world at large, be it politics or religion, common sense is on hiatus.  It has simply left the building.  And that is the root of much my of my anger and sadness about the world today.

While in college, I had the chance to study and to meet Lawrence Kohlberg, a professor at Harvard University who was well-known for his theory of moral development.  In his theory, there are three levels of moral development with two stages within each level.  Kohlberg also maintained that individuals could only progress through these stages one at a time, in order, without jumping any stage.  The first level, termed “pre-conventional” is generally found in elementary school age children.  At stage 1, (ages 1-5) children behave according to socially acceptable norms created by an authority figure.  Obedience is compelled by threat of punishment.  At stage 2, (ages 5-10) right behavior means acting in one’s own interest, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”  The next level, “conventional,” is where most of society lies.  Beginning with stage 3 (ages 8-16) right choices are based on being a “good boy/girl or doing what will gain the approval of important others such as parents, teachers or friends.  Stage 4 (ages 16 and above and if they reach it, where most adults remain) is defined by abiding the law and fulfilling one’s obligation of duty.  In this stage, leaders are assumed to be right and individuals adopt social rules without considering the underlying ethical principles involved.  People who break rules, deserved to be punished.

What I found most disturbing was Kohlberg’s conclusion that only about 20-25% of today’s adults (most in their late twenties) ever reach the last level of moral development, labeled “post-conventional.”   In stage 5, people do recognize the underlying moral principles served by laws, and if a law no longer serves a good purpose, they actively work to change it through legal and democratic means.  Respect for the law and a sense of obligation to live by the rules is still important, but an individual uses only legally acceptable means to make changes.   Less than 1% of adults ever make a stage 6 moral decision.  Kohlberg believed, theoretically, that civil disobedience was often how a stage 6 moral decision distinguished itself.  In this instance, breaking a law in defense of an individual right can be justified.  Martin Luther King, for example, argued that laws are only valid insofar as they are grounded in justice, and that a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws and accept whatever consequences may come.

It is the kind of strength of conscience that defines Kohlberg’s sixth level that led me to conclude that developing one’s native good judgment is a necessary step in reaching the latter stages of moral development.  It is by exercising and honing one’s native good judgment that acts as a moral compass in not only determining what rules we are going to live by, but gives an individual the internal fortitude and certainty to actually live by them.

In the Judeo/Christian tradition, we are taught that human beings are created in the image of God so the obvious conclusion is that we should have a great deal of faith in our native good judgment.  If we are going to continue to evolve as human beings it doesn’t make sense to think that by questioning cultural rules we would encourage anarchy, rather, it should encourage just the exact opposite.  It is often through questioning that truth itself becomes clearer and that clarity will ultimately shed light on what rules are working in each individual life.  Of course any challenge to these rules most likely leads to conflict but, it was and still is from this kind of vantage point that I make most decisions to co-direct my destiny.

As I mentioned before, exercising the senses to develop that inherent native good judgment is a must.  Lack of use weakens our ability to use them and leaves one vulnerable to outside influences.  Of course, there are many reasons that all of us have, at times, chosen to disregard what we know to be true, subjecting ourselves to a whole other set of unhealthy rules.  Catholic school taught me that they were the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth.  There are a host of others, to be sure, but these seven are as good as any.  Knowing what rules serve a higher purpose doesn’t mean that I was always capable of listening to that inner voice and adhering to them—which is normal because sometimes the best way to learn is by making mistakes.  Note the distinction between discovering what rules are good to follow and actually choosing to follow them; it is very important.  Obviously, the proof is in what kind of choices we have made in our lives thus far and the people who influence us on a daily basis.  However, the more adept we become at using native good judgment, the more difficult it becomes to fall prey to those deadly sins.

It would be inaccurate to assume that “proof” of using native good judgment will always result in being labeled “good” by society.  In thinking of my own childhood a little poem comes to mind: “When I was good, I was very, very good and when I was bad I was clueless.”  The ditty needed changing because sometimes challenging the rules means embracing the willingness to accept judgment as being bad.  Being labeled “naughty” by some of my teachers perhaps was the inevitable result of not behaving as little girls should, meaning I always spoke my mind and never stopped barraging teachers with questions about things that were difficult to wrap my young brain around.  Mind you, I never wanted to be bad; being arbitrary just didn’t come naturally.  All I wanted to know, if I was expected to act a certain way, was the reason why.  Perhaps one of the results of questioning the validity of the rules we follow is to turn up the volume on those innate sensibilities.  So, what does this all mean in practical terms?  Stay tuned…

Let the Games Begin!

the game of lifeFor a moment, imagine the point in time when humankind’s consciousness became aware of itself.  The phrase, “Let the games begin” comes to mind.  From that point forward, complete with cutthroat competition for an elusive prize at the end, whether it be immortality or eternal life, humankind has been in a race against itself up the evolutionary ladder.  Throughout history, humanity has also established cultural rules by which to play.  The rules may not be listed as clearly as they are in a Milton-Bradley game, but they’re there.  Face it; rules are important to any game especially when the stakes include life and death, and in many cases, heaven.   I don’t have a problem with living by cultural rules, but I do take issue, however, with who made up the rules we are supposed to live by and what it takes to win.   For the most part, history has been retold by a pretty select group of people, usually men of European background.  Why is this fact important?  Because there is a symbiotic relationship between whomever holds power, who records history and  who has made up most of the rules.  The result: defining the appropriate way to observe the world.

Because men have made up most of the rules simply means it has never been a level playing field for anyone that is not in this majority.  Don’t get me wrong, I love men—a lot, so much so that I married one and gave birth to two.  However, in order for me to embrace my full potential and become that unique ingredient in making a better world, it was and still is a necessity to challenge and question cultural rules, regardless of how far women have come in our historical journey, there is quite a distance left to travel.  Dreams begin their genesis in a form that is as small as a mustard seed.  And it is often the perimeters and basic assumptions created by cultural rules that are the biggest impediment to a dream’s development.  As a woman, I am certainly aware of what impact they had on mine.  It is sad to think of the dreams that may have died because they weren’t able to  thrive a midst the rules imposed by one’s culture.

A favorite philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, said that in investigating any philosophy of an era, there will be fundamental assumptions that adherents to that philosophy will presuppose, even if unconsciously.  These assumptions appear so obvious that the people adhering to them don’t even know they are assuming them because putting them another way has never even occurred to them.  These assumptions also color the way in which we observe the world.   Eternity with God in heaven for those who follow the right rules and eternal suffering with the Devil in hell for those who don’t are two simple examples.

Since all of us are a part of, potentially, many different philosophical groups (religious, political, economical, etc.) it is important to ask what the fundamental assumptions of these groups are, and how are said assumptions are translated into rules, and by following said rules, who exactly benefits?  Perhaps the most important realization of our time is to consider the possibility that our assumptions about the world are deeply flawed or at least inaccurate, and by critiquing them, there may be a new way to see and appreciate our place in the world.

Essentially, the problem is not that there are conflicting perspectives but that there only seems to be one “right” one that should prevail at any given time.  Whitehead also said that goodness and badness are relative to those fundamental assumptions endorsed by a ruling majority.  Given that we all experience life differently, how logical is that?  And although there are also perceptual inaccuracies based on race and sexual orientation, I am not the person to discuss them here.  Since I am Caucasian, female, Irish, Christian and heterosexual, and this blog is about my observations, I can’t really speak to their perspectives.  However, since male and female go beyond race and sexual orientation, and are universal to being human, hopefully anyone can resonate with some of the fundamental assumptions that exist, involving gender.

All of us are rooted in a gender that is male or female.  While the argument regarding nature vs. nurture still exists, my own personal experience has shown me that biology does affect perspective.  I tried to steer away from gender oriented toys when my sons were small, but no amount of influence on my part to raise them outside gender stereotypes could change the fact that they would rather sleep with a car than a teddy bear, they loved dirt more than anything, they figured out how to pee in the woods before the toilet, and no matter how hard I tried to keep guns out of the house, they made them out of anything else they could find.  I don’t believe in the nature side of the argument in a definitive sense but let me remind you these are my observations.

Scaling it down to the simplest form, look at how gender rules surface every day.  One need only look at the amount of literature that has been put out trying to help men and women understand one another.   Since spending the last several years in a household of men, my husband, two sons, it has become even clearer to me that the world they observe isn’t at all like the one in my head, and is most often the source of conflict in our household.  None of the men in my life think like me. (I’m not sure anybody does, but for the sake of conjecture let’s just say one of the reasons is because I’m a girl)  They march to a completely different rhythm.  The world for them appears to be just one big continuous playing field, one competition after another.  The rules they live by are not the same as my rules.  More than anything, a woman’s perspective regarding the rules of our household is not wanted or necessary for their happiness.  They do, however, know what happens when I am unhappy…life can become pretty miserable.  As a result, they choose to include my rules sometimes, not necessarily because their lives will be enhanced but just so that they get to live-period.  And if on my small level, I have to fight to include my rules in our household, it isn’t surprising at all that our cultural rule makers still disregard women in general.

So, let me just describe my personal jumping off point in shaking the foundations of this historical king of the hill that society has been playing, so to speak (notice the game isn’t called queen of the hill).  For a certain amount of time I held all rules suspended; not so much as an excuse to wreak havoc, but to use a girly metaphor, more to clean out my own cosmic closet and get rid of all the stuff that no longer fit or was, to put it bluntly, just tacky and outdated.  Arguing in favor of any particular new paradigm that only benefits me and trying to shove it down anyone else’s throat will never work.  The reason for starting here, challenging the established rules and assumptions of our present time, had a lot to do with my own personal development.  It never made good sense to follow a lot of rules blindly, especially those that were oppressive, simply because I was born female.

Here again was my first step, and probably the most difficult: accepting the challenge to break away from my own belief systems and rules, and entertain the possibility that they may not have served me all too well, not just from a place of indulgence but of personal fulfillment.  From this standpoint, there was absolutely nothing to lose except, perhaps, the realization that I might be wasting precious time.  If your own life is hunky dory then stop reading right now, no harm, no foul.  But if deep down in your spiritual self you also find there is a sense of discord created by the rules you’ve followed up to this point, then read on and try what I did.  Personal beliefs should at least be scrutinized every once in a while, even if it only acts as a reminder of why we started following them in the first place.  A function of free will is not to embrace matters of belief blindly; Jesus told us that “if you seek, you will find.”

It doesn’t seem logical that questioning the rules that control our lives would have any effect on real truth, especially if the questions stem from a desire to further understanding.  It’s worked for me because I question everything (which contrary to my catechism teachers turned out to be a very good thing) and my faith in God, myself and humanity is even stronger as a result.  Culturally, asking “why” after about the age of three usually labels you a trouble maker, and I’ve had to deal with that unfair moniker most of my life.  Remember the phrase “misery loves company?” well, perhaps enlightenment loves it just as much; the kind of enlightenment that is predicated by artfully and continually asking questions.  There is nothing greater than being in the company of people who want to know and understand as much as they can.

It never occurred to me to get hung up on the notion that even if an individual did disagree with some of the rules imposed by modern culture,that said individual lacked the power to do anything about it.  No personal evolution can take place without individual choice regarding the rules that one follows.  Changing cultural rules may not be easy, slavery and women’s suffrage being only two examples, but the alternative is to choose a life burdened by cultural rules that not only dash ones personal dreams but all the dreams out there that were dependent on your unique perspective.  Has anyone ever told you that the world will be a better place for everyone if you were able to live your dreams?  That my happiness may hinge on yours?  I didn’t think so.  Hopefully, by the end of this little essay you will entertain the possibility  that there is everything you can do about changing cultural rules.  So for now, don’t worry about changing anything, just take a deep look at what makes you tick, and let go of the rest.

So what does one do in the absence of any system of belief, live by the seat of one’s pants?  Well, yes, I guess.  What it boils down to is that people are inherently really quite sensible about which rules are good for them and which rules are not: whether we have the strength to listen to that sensibility and follow it is another matter entirely.   In order to begin perceiving the world from a higher, spiritual place, it was necessary for me to master the inherent gifts God had given me.  And let me tell you there have been plenty of times when I wondered if I had any at all—and that concern turned out to be a gift in itself because it forced to me to keep my eyes open and pay attention and embrace some good common sense…but I’ll leave that for next time