The philosopher Ken Wilber has a model consisting of four quadrants. Wilber posits that reality as experienced by human beings can be framed holistically using his four-quadrant model. The right side of the model has two quads that relate to exteriority and is considered the home of objective things. The left side of the model also has two quads that relate to interiority and is considered the home of subjective phenomena. This post will focus on the left side of the quad. Further, I will focus on the role of narratives or stories, if you prefer, in the two left side quads.
The upper left quad is about individuals and their subjective reality or I perspectives (personal worldview), and the lower left quad is about collections of individuals or We perspectives (cultural worldviews or consensus worldviews). There exists a dynamic interplay between these two quads. While each of us develops a personal worldview (PW), this does not happen in isolation. As each individual develops and matures, s/he is exposed to the cultural worldview (CW) of parents, relatives, community members (such as teachers, religious leaders and politicians), siblings and peers (whose PW is in process like their own), and many others. Each of these adult PWs is relatively stable and maps onto the cultural worldview (CW) to one degree or another. The implied variability in this mapping is due to a variety of things but I’ll sum it under the idea of variations in personal experience.
Thus, CW provides the context in which PW develops, and PW reflects to one degree or another CW along with the impact of variable personal experiences on PW. The people that we interact with, especially during development but also as adults, provide exposure to both CWs and PWs that influence our PW and our understanding of CW. Further, narratives or stories that we are exposed to serve to represent, reinforce, dismiss and modify our worldviews and thus our conception of reality, both on a personal and cultural level.
It should be kept in mind that Wilber’s model is a cognitive developmental model. Each of us start at ground zero and then progress through different patterns of cognition. These patterns are laid down as neurological pathways in our brains. These pathways are subject to growth and restructuring until our brains mature and no longer have the neural plasticity necessary for easily restructuring neural pathways. Brain maturation usually ends between 18 and 25 years of age and so does easily accomplished neural restructuring. Interestingly, recent research suggests that psychedelic substances are able to restore neural plasticity at least for short periods of time. This may hold some promise for acquiring further cognitive development after reaching maturity.
Wilber has identified about eight different cognitive patterns most of which he associates with worldviews at both the personal and cultural level. At present he thinks that there is a state of conflict between patterns 4, 5 and 6, with 6 being a smaller cohort of individuals than either of the other two. He thinks this conflict will not be resolved until the highest pattern becomes larger than the other two. He also thinks that a full resolution will require yet a higher pattern, which will be integral in nature and will fully integrate all of the prior patterns within itself and thus become a true holon; i.e., a pattern that has transcended its predecessors and fully included them in an integration. Thus, another consideration in the development of personal worldviews is the typical level of development being achieved by individuals in a given culture. The typical level of cognitive development found in the members of a culture therefore function as a limit on the cultural worldview that can gain dominance and guide the culture.
Coming back to narratives or stories, we might ask where do cultural narratives or stories come from? They are the products of novelists, playwrites, script writers, poets, song writers, politicians, philosophers, scientists, economists, historians, theologians and so on. For example, when you read a novel there are certain cultural themes implicit in the novel. How can you know this? Because you understand the story. CW is the context for meaning in any society. If you read a novel written by an author who comes from a society that has a CW that is highly divergent from your own, you will certainly not fully understand the story that the novel is communicating, or if there is sufficient discontinuity between the writer’s CW and your own CW, you may not understand the story at all.
It should be pretty clear how the producers of stories that we consume, as entertainment, are purveyors of stories that must to a large degree reflect the CW that the producer of the story is embedded in. However, you should be able to see how this doesn’t have to be a mirror reflection but can introduce new themes, discount existing themes, relate themes in new ways and so on. You may be less clear about how people like scientists or politicians are contributing stories to the CW. Science is a producer of narratives or stories. At their broadest they are called paradigms. Within paradigms there are narratives called theories or models that tend to be limited to particular lines of investigation, e.g., physics or biology. Albert Einstein once remarked that a trap many scientists fall into is to confuse their theory or model with physical reality. Politicians also have narratives or stories that they are purveyors of that are broadly referred to as ideologies. Depending on the ideology, they will have stories described as democratic, socialist or communist among others. As you may have recognized, this post is itself being generated by Wilber’s theoretical model or narrative about reality as experienced by humanity.
There are individuals within societies that are out-of-step, to one degree or another, with the CW of a given society. A mild misalignment may be considered eccentric while a significant misalignment may be considered pathological. It should be recognized that individuals from this continuum can be the source of creative innovation or disorder to the CW. To be influential for good or ill, they probably will need to be charismatic, persuasive and have access to a public platform, e.g., political office or influential role in entertainment or high position in business or high military position. There are other sources of narrative that can be the impetus for change in CW. These might include things like climate change or a change in population dynamics or significant immigration of peoples from a different CW. None of these are necessarily either good or bad influences on the CW of the society experiencing them. It depends upon the extent of their effect and the change produced. Change is always accompanied by an increase in disorder. If it is positive change, it will result in an advantageous disordering and reordering of the society’s CW. If is negative change, it will result in destructive disorder and possible social collapse.
In my view, contemporary American society is experiencing a significant amount of disorder. The cultural worldview seems to be fracturing. Some attribute this to such things as immigration, progressive politics, alt-right politics, corporate power, global trade, skewed distribution of wealth, loss of purpose and meaning, monolithic government, or social media. You can perhaps think of some others. The very list of attributed causes and the range of groups positing them is evidence in itself of a slide into disorder. One point that I would make here is that the range of voices bemoaning various influences and their volume is probably due to social media. Social media provides a public platform that requires very little to gain access. It fosters the democratization and amplification of PWs, which can create conflict and disorder on a large scale. However, I would suggest that social media simply makes more visible discord that already exists and amplifies it, rather than being the cause of it.
How can we respond constructively to this disorder? I have no simple or pat answer to this question. One thing I am pretty sure of is that imposed order is not the solution, short of a chaotic situation. Even then it is a stop-gap measure, which doesn’t mean it can’t have significant duration. In the end, imposed order will fail, if it hasn’t been used to create a self-sustaining, participatory order. Without a self-sustaining order, the underlying disorder will soon assert itself when the imposed order fails. To illustrate this you need look no further than the ethnic conflicts that broke out in eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I am pretty sure that a negative strategy will not solve the problem. Should an autocratic politician gain power and suppress disorder, the appearance of order that follows will eventually crumble and disorder will once again gain expression. I am also of the opinion that preventing any of the various “problems” considered causes of disorder will not lead to a solution. Creating fortress America where rigid control is imposed on who gets into the country or who can sell goods in the country is unlikely to eliminate the disorder. Clamping down on social media by oppressive monitoring and suppression of free speech won’t end the problem either.
One suggestion that has been put forward that has some merit ,though it would not be easy to implement, is to create a new core narrative for the CW. This would have to be a narrative or story that is inclusive and integrated and widely acceptable within the society. The story may arise from any number of potential sources. The critical step would be for it to be adopted by and promoted by people in public leadership positions. In all likelihood, this would be politicians running for office, especially at the state and national levels. Such a group might even constitute a new political party or the transformation of an existing organization. Merely squeaking out a victory at the polls would not be sufficient endorsement of the narrative to begin the process of creating a self-sustaining order. There must be overwhelming support or a super majority for those advocating a narrative, if it is to have a chance to change the cultural context.
Do you doubt that narrative has the power to make significant changes in cultural and personal worldviews? Consider then the story of politics and governance told by John Stuart Mill. The story of economics and markets told by Adam Smith. The story of evolution and adaptation told by Charles Darwin. The story of revolution and labor told by Karl Marx. The story of physics and relativity told by Albert Einstein. Or, consider the story of race and destiny told by Adolf Hitler. Impactful narratives abound in history for those willing to see them and recognize their role in revising worldviews. Where shall the next revision come from and how will it alter the worldviews that it impacts?
Various distinctions are made between meditation and contemplation. For me, the distinction is found in the difference in focus that one holds in the practices. In meditation (discussed in another post), the focus is holistic and attention to objects within the holistic focus is avoided through relaxed concentration on the whole or what I have called elsewhere, a perceptual or sensory gestalt. How to do this has been described in another post.
Contemplation, on the other hand, has a particularized focus that through relaxed concentration on the object of contemplation seeks understanding or insight. When I do this I select something that I want to more fully understand intuitively. This is a right-hemisphere way of gaining knowledge. Because it calls on intuition, contemplation cannot employ reasoning or analytic thought, which are the most common approaches one tends to take when trying to understand something. However, these cognitive processes are a function of the left hemisphere, which when activated suppresses right hemisphere functions.
Thus, a focus that seeks intuitive understanding or insight must be a light focus in which an image, word, phrase, situation, etc., are held in awareness but nothing more. Just awareness without thinking. Once in this state, one simply waits patiently for a thought or image to spontaneously arise. When something arises, hold that in awareness in the manner previously described. Wait for another spontaneous thought or image to arise. Continue to repeat this process until you sense that you’ve reached the end of the process, especially if you feel that you’ve accomplished the understanding that you wanted. You might think of this process as a version of free association.
Since meditation has some overlapping similarity to contemplation, it would not be surprising if one were to have flashes of intuitive insight during meditation. I have had this happen a number of times. What spontaneously arises for me is usually in the form of a brief aphorism whose meaning I sometimes don’t fully appreciate. In such cases, I employ contemplation as a way of gaining greater understanding of what arose. The following are examples of aphorisms that arose during meditation:
1. Ego’s resistance to Being blocks Self-realization.
2. You are Love’s body. (This one resulted in a poem, Love’s Body.)
3. Unconditional Love dissolves the attachment of ego to judgment.
4. Being trumps doing.
5. Pursuit of experience is avoidance of Presence.
6. Ego is the mask God wears while pretending to be you.
7. Compulsive thinking is cognitive avoidance of being Present.
If any of the above aphorisms are vague or meaningless to you, consider using the aphorism as a focus for contemplation. Follow the guidelines provided above for your practice or, if you already have a contemplative practice, follow that protocol.
Many of the poems that I have written have had their origin in contemplation with the goal of intuitive understanding. The skeleton for a recent poem came about through this process. In my reading I have come across the word “Emptiness” many times. From the context it was clear that the writer did not mean “empty” in the usual sense. So, I did a contemplative session on “Emptiness” using the process described above. The result was a poem, The Ground of All Being.
I think the course of personal identity moves across four, basic developmental domains, though not everyone explicates and integrates all four domains. The four domains are sensory, physical, mental and spiritual. In keeping with the present focus, let’s refer to them as the sensory self, physical self, mental self and spiritual self. In the following I will set out a hypothetical description of how this development unfolds.
The development of selves is largely a process dependent upon differentiation. A new born infant initially identifies with its sensory field and has a sensory self. With time and experience, a process that differentiates the self from the sensory field begins. This starts with differentiating various aspects of the sensory field from one another and assigning them the status of being separate “things.” For example, think of a bird and its song. At first, the bird and its song are part of the generalized, unified sensory field. With experience, an infant begins to recognize the bird as the source of the song and to consider the two as an integrated whole that attention turns the bird into an object of consciousness. Once captured as an object of consciousness, the bird and its song become abstracted through visual and auditory representation. With that comes the ability to recall a memory that encodes the bird symbolically. This memory allows the bird to be isolated, explored and manipulated symbolically as an object in consciousness. This cognitive possession of the bird and its song differentiates it from the self and make it a separate object within awareness.
This process of differentiation goes on until a clear sense of two categories develops: self and other. By “other” is meant things that have become differentiated as separate “things.” The next step is begun with the question, who is this self that is aware of all these other things, which can be turned into objects of consciousness? At this time, the thing that garners the most attention in awareness is the physical body. The physical body not only has been differentiated from the sensory field but has also been recognized as the seat of a great many subjective experiences. It experiences emotional reactions, thoughts and feelings along with auditory, visual, olfactory and tactile sensations, among others. All this appears to be localized in the physical body. Under these conditions, it is very easy to identify oneself with the body. Hence, we have the physical self. The former sensory self has been transcended but the transition from sensory to physical self integrates the sensory self into the physical self.
The real fireworks begin with transcending the physical self and arriving at the mental self. With the beginning of the mental self a significant change in perception takes place. Up until this point, perception has been largely a bottom up process, which means that perception is relatively unhindered by filters. As language skills grow and experience is reconstructed with visual and linguistic symbols, a shift away from a focus on the physical body begins and is accompanied by a change of focus to mental activity. Not only are memories encoded but are also interpreted. Memories are assigned meanings and so begins the creation of a personal past. Perception now begins to shift toward a top down process, which means that perception comes to be a process subject to filtering. We also learn that we can describe and interpret imaginal outcomes thereby conjuring up a future. The narrative approach to life has begun in earnest. Our mental self becomes absorbed with the content of our mind.
With this mental focus, our narratives and their meanings begin to organize themselves into an hierarchy of beliefs about ourselves and our lives. Along with the mental self, ego arrives on the scene. Our identity has now transcended the physical self. The physical self, along with the sensory self integrated into it, has been incorporated into the newly developed mental self. The first stage of the mental self could be described as egocentric. We are consumed with ourselves; with our self narrative. We narrowly perceive the world through a first person perspective.
As we gain experience, develop cognitively and become more sophisticated in our thinking, our narratives grow more complex and our perspective broadens into a second person perspective. This new stage in the mental self could be described as ethnocentric. We now include in our identities others who belong to groups in which we are embedded. Our identity now includes our family and family friends. It may include others similar to us who, for example, are members of our religion and attend services with us. It will grow to include “outsiders,” known to us, who share our beliefs and other characteristics such as ethnicity, language, dress, food habits and so on. For some of us, development becomes arrested at this stage due to a constrained range of experiences. A constraint on our range of experience results in a lack of opportunity for new cognitive growth. Often, the constraint is imposed by our narratives and the beliefs about the world that they impose on our perceptions and the meaning we attribute to them. Things such as racism are usually grounded in an ethnocentric identity.
If we do continue in our development, the next stage in the evolution of the mental self could be described as sociocentric. We now have acquired the ability to take a third person perspective. We can identify with a much larger social group than in the past. Our expanded narratives gives us a social perspective that is much broader than our previous provincial identity. We can now bring into our identity persons who differ from us in significant ways because we share a broader membership with them. For example, if we strongly identify with our nationality, we can incorporate people who may have significant differences from ourselves into our identity because they too are American or French or Chinese and so on. It is likely that the upper developmental limit for most people is a sociocentric perspective. People that we might describe as nationalists are probably operating from this level of identity.
A small number of people who continue to develop will transition to a worldcentric perspective. The final step in the development of the mental self. They now identify with a context that exceeds the boundaries of nation states. Such individuals become “citizens” of the world and identify with humanity in its many variations. All the previous self identities and narratives related to those identities have been incorporated into and subsumed by the new broader identity. These are people who advocate for just treatment of all living things, of a more holistic approach to the health of the planet and sustainable styles of living. Many of us would consider this the pinnacle of human cognitive development, which it may be in a sense.
Yet, there remains, at least, one more development related to self or identity. This transformation goes by various names but in the first paragraph it was called the spiritual self. Transcendence of the mental self to the spiritual self could be described as arriving at a Kosmocentric perspective. This is a relatively rare occurrence and you probably have never met such a person. One reason that it is so rare is because almost everyone becomes deeply entangled in their ever more complex personal narratives or more simply stated in their mental self. As one spiritual teacher put it, we are “lost in our minds.” The mental self lives through symbolic representations of the past and for imagined futures and gives little attention to the present. What goes unrecognized is that recall of narratives about the past are about things that no longer exist, if they ever did, and that narratives about the future are about things that may never come to pass. The only reality that one can truly grasp is the one that is fleetingly present in the moment. One likely distinction between the earlier selves and the spiritual self is that the former are largely governed by processes associated with the left hemisphere in the brain and the latter in the right hemisphere. It is the difference between a particularlized and a holistic grasp on our experienced reality.
I ask that you contemplate the following questions carefully. Are you really the stories (narratives) that you tell about yourself? Do these narratives feel love or anger? Can your narratives think about things? Who is it that knows your subjective experience? Who is editing and telling these stories that you live by? It is certainly not the narratives that you associate with your name; e.g., Bill Smith or Mary Jones, doing all these things. So, who is doing it? If you like, you can read a poem that I wrote that also addresses this issue here or read a more complete list of questions here.
It would appear that you have a subtle self that is the observer of all that you are. It is not your sensory field though it is aware of the sensory field. It is not your physical body though it is aware of the physical body. It is not your mental activity though it is aware of your mental activity. It is your uncluttered ever present conscious awareness. The spiritual self has always been present but your attention has been elsewhere. You’ve lived much of your life consumed by distractions. If you can identify with the spiritual self you will have a unique perspective that still has access to all the prior selves that you’ve grown through, if they will still serve you, but you will not be entangled in them.
One person, the late Franklin Merrell-Wolff, who connected with his spiritual self and became present with his pristine conscious awareness described living through the spiritual self as the “high indifference.” What he meant by this phrase was that he seldom needed to interpret his experience through narratives. He seldom found beliefs that gave meaning to those narratives useful. Thus, he found little use for judgment and was open to and accepting of life as it passed through him. He found that he was emotionally disengaged from most events taking place around him. The people involved in those events were entangled in stories that often competed with one another for the status of “truth.” This does not mean that he did not engage the world. What it means is that he engaged the world through discernment free of any narrative generated prescription about how he should engage it.
He found that being fully present in the world required little attention to the world of the mind that consumed those around him. Giving little attention to the mentally constructed world gave him a clearer view of what was important and when he acted he was more likely to have an effect on something that mattered. The late Abraham Maslow, a developmental psychologist, described the pinnacle of his developmental pyramid as self transcendence. It is a rising above the mental self and all that went before it. It is an experience and there is no formula for creating a transcendent experience. It is an internal journey following a pathless path. It is awakening to one’s true nature and being released from ignorance.