Meta-Narratives Worth Noting
The Life We Learn With...
(And the life we live after that)
If you know anything about me, you know I love stories, particularly ones that take form as film, TV and games. So, I thought I would begin with a story from a movie.
One of my favorite baseball movies is…“The Natural” starring Robert Redford and Glenn Close. It tells the story of a boy with budding baseball talent heading to the city and the big leagues. He has grown up with the girl, (Glenn Close) in a small farming community and right before he leaves for training camp they have an intimate moment, and then he is on his way. The future seems bright for both of them.
However, on the train to the big city, a mysterious woman seduces Redford and then in this weird twist kills herself. A huge scandal ensues. Redford never makes it to training camp and disappears for years before emerging again as an older man, still with some baseball skills. Redford is secretive about this time period, but as he begins to find success at the major league level, he receives all kinds of attention. This includes the Glenn Close character finding him at one of the baseball parks many years later. In a subsequent conversation, he is beating himself up over what happened to him and them. She says… “I believe there is the life we learn with and then there is the life we live after that.”
My life has felt that way to me. In the beginning I knew nothing, did a lot of naïve and stupid stuff, took chances, knowing and unknowingly offended people, even as I found a measure of success. The traumas of childhood stay with us and until I worked with mine, I required many learning opportunities until I started to get it. I am not saying that you ever stop learning, but there was a life I learned with, and then the life after that where I grew up into my better self. Internally I was always hard on myself throughout and this story in “The Natural” helped me manage that energy in a more useful way. In the end, I can truly say I have tried to do my best, recognizing that I failed miserably lots of times. I hope everyone that has engaged with me in this lifetime has felt at the end of the day, the positives outweighed my not so great moments.
Our Stories Matter
This may seem like an obvious statement for me. After all I am someone who has loved and made a living creating stories. Early on, I believed the stories we tell functioned as vehicles to explore lives beyond our own. They could illuminate parts of the past to be re-examined and offer suggestions of what the future might bring. I merrily went about creating my stories in songs, films/TV, interactive entertainment and documentaries and that seemed like enough.
However, as I got some years behind me, I came to realize that our stories are much more than that. And that interested me deeply. They can shape our economic, political, social, technological, cultural and spiritual choices. They can communicate our thoughts, feelings, dreams and actions to others. They can re-imagine the road ahead.
So, in that moment I began dedicating to myself to re-imagining what is possible going forward through the stories I was telling myself as part of the collective story that was unfolding in the culture. The good news was if I didn’t like the conditions of my life or the world I lived in... the first step to changing that was to make some attempt to change the narrative that was driving me as a part of what was unfolding.
As I stand here near the end of my particular life story, I believe our current culture is based on an old story that does not serve us any more. This story has been very successful for a long time and responsible for creating undreamed of abundance for certain populations on the planet, but it no longer has the capacities to meet the challenges we face globally.
As our intelligence has advanced, we have come to understand that the planets resources are finite. We are also going through another period where the wealth that we create is being consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. If you pay attention to the stories of history, whenever this has happened before, it hasn’t turned out well for anyone,
As you think and feel into what you want to be and do, I am going to suggest that you examine the stories you tell yourself that influence your view of what is possible in any given moment. As I have already said… if you don’t like the way your story is unfolding, change it. It is spirits gift to all of us.
We humans develop some kind of meaning making system to make sense of everything that is constantly emerging around us, whether we are aware of it or not. Without one it would be too scary too venture out in the world. We need some framework/story that helps us decide, for example, what is good, true and beautiful and what isn’t. For the longest time this did not occur to me.
I lived my life as it unfolded mostly unaware that my stories were shaping my perception of everything. It didn’t occur to me that some explanation (a map of reality) is always present to help us sort out the diverse inputs that bombard us in each moment. The good news, as I said above, was… if I didn’t like something about my present state, I could change the story that was enabling it. That was liberating.
Over the years my meaning making story has evolved to include more. Certainly a real experience of the realms of spirit was added in later years. A real connection though contemplative spiritual practice to something larger than just me. It was often so powerful I did not want to come back to the bodily limitations of this reality.
My interest in meaning making stories didn't really fully develop until I was taught later in my life about how we humans grow from infants to mature adults. These pointing out instructions were part of Integral Theory that I learned from one of my mentors, philosopher Ken Wilber. 100 years of developmental research tells us that at each stage of life an individual’s meaning making system expands to include more in how it relates to the world. Babies for example are only interested in being fed and keeping warm, while adults are acutely aware that they are part of a much larger eco-system of human experience and contribute something to its outcomes.
As we look back to some earlier age, we catch ourselves saying… “I am not that person anymore.” In that moment that may be true. You may have found a new orienting story that still includes everything you experienced before, but has added something new and novel. By the time I was in my sixties I had gone through this process of evolving or re-inventing myself many times. Each transition had its uncertainty and uncomfortableness, but in the end it felt like I had no choice, but to push forward to the next version of myself.
I will leave the details of how we develop these meaning making systems to the experts, but my experience is that my life was influenced by three factors.
What I was born with. (my innate abilities both positive and negative from generations of family DNA)
What I learned from what I experienced individually and collectively, both in my interior awareness and my exterior world experiences.
The influence of the people and the culture that surrounded me. You could add to this, some higher power co-creating with us.
Born To Be and Beyond.
There is a on-going debate about whether we are born into this life with certain characteristics. My experience in interacting with a variety of life forms is that each individual seems to have some innate characteristics that make them unique at birth. The new born, whether they are human or animal, seem to display certain patterns from the very beginning, well before they are fully aware that they are in a related world with others. We usually say something like… “they/we were just born that way.”
There are many theories on this subject, particularly from our religious and spiritual communities. One persistent story claims that we live many lives and carry the results of those lives into the next one. The concept of a continuing Karma is one way this gets expressed.
Certainly, I’ve had moments when I was aware of something moving in me that was more than this body and mind was conscious of in that particular moment. I’ve also had moments when I just knew something, even though I had no experience of it that I could remember in this life. This is the subject of millions of words written over the eons and someday we will all find out, but my sense of this is shrouded in the deepest part of the human mystery. Consequently any perspective I try to impart here is constrained by the limitations of this body and mind and I suspect will fall considerably short of the truth.
What I suspect the transition from this life to what’s next is NOT... is some sort of judgement process that rewards or punishes accordingly. The experience I’ve had of a higher power is that it is operating far beyond the very human instinct to judge all things as more or less. Do we carry things from this life into the next if there is one? Is there some part of us that continues after this body gives up? We say energy is never destroyed, but just changes forms so…
I have experienced the universe (Kosmos) from its beginning as a singular big bang moment. In the expansion that followed, matter evolved from particles and gas to complex multi-dimension forms such as galaxies, stars, planets, and lifeforms to name just a few. Each one more capable/complex (intelligent) than the previous one, yet the latest version still including all the prior forms.
One way to look at this historically is to trace what we know now about the development of this universe. From mere atoms, to molecules, to multi-cell organisms to human’s with reflective capacity, Kosmic intelligence has increased in complexity. If this is happening on a Kosmic scale and we are a part of this Kosmos, it stands to reason that we also, at our core, may be some type of soul/energy that travels through many lives, each one adding to our understanding and capacity. Hopefully we progress…
All that being said, the summation of human life that has so recently developed on this planet remains for me… ”one day dirt stood up and started reciting Shakespeare.” Just take that in for a moment. The difference in evolutionary complexity is staggering, yet it happened right here on this planet not long ago and we still don’t know why or what is next. At the moment, we are already creating a post human future as artificial intelligence expands our notion of what we call intelligence again. Whether we end up integrating with this intelligence or surpassed by it, already the complexity of life is advancing far beyond when humans first started reflecting and communicating about their existence some 50 thousand years ago.
What ultimately informed me…
Love and be loved
This sounds corny or predictable in older age, but it turned out to be at the core of life lessons for me. When I traced everything that I experienced, it turned out the driving (invisible) force was simply me wanting to contribute something to expanding our intelligence in this world. Another way of saying this is… "leave it better than you found it." The ultimate outcome of that intelligence expanding for me in this realm was love. In all forms, the characters and stories that I inhabited, love was the through line, as we like to say as storytellers. Always present, always available no matter what is happening. The question for me in those challenging moments was…. could I return to a state of love. I did get a bit better at it later on in life.
While it is true that we all contain base human instincts that are prone to violence against others and the planet, it is also true, we have evolved over 50,000 years. We have developed the capacity of our mind/body to manage these base instincts. That challenge for me was expressing love no matter how my base instincts/voices were trying to influence my behavior otherwise.
There are a few individuals I have met that radiate this kind of unconditional love. The DaIai Lama was one of them. When I was in his presence it was not so much what he was teaching, but the field of love he transmitted. I suspect from the stories we are told, Jesus had the same capabilities. My mentor later in life Ken Wilber had a particular version of this transmission, in spite of all his shortcomings that helped me sort all of this out. Father Thomas Keating and Adjashanti were others. I learned (often the hard way) that we have the opportunity in each and every moment to react with and experience love. I failed miserably lots of the time, but I eventually learned with practice to be better at coming back to love, as my friend and collaborator Keith Witt reminds us.
In my early days all I wanted was to be a part of creating something novel or new. Creative moments excited me. The artist’s road less traveled as it is often called. It turns out that the creative drive to create something novel is what fuels the expansion of all existence as well. Who knew? My experience was that In each present moment, there is some expression of the past coupled with some novel, new occurrence that ensures that the next moment is not the same as the one preceding it. I learned that each of us, no matter how insignificant we feel are a small part of that creative force expanding in this world and the Kosmos. Later in my life it seemed it was the only reason for me to still be here.
At first, I chased this creative passion very unconsciously. I was excited by the prospect of creating something from nothing and getting noticed for it. My writing/performing music was the initial form it took. When I listen back to the lyrics I wrote all those many years ago, I hear things that came through me then that I did not have any awareness of in that moment. After my 10 years making music, my stories continued to express themselves in many different kinds of media, film, television, interactive entertainment, documentaries, transmedia etc.
In my later years I became much more aware that every thought I had or action I took could make some small positive addition to the pool of human intelligence evolving/expanding or not. It helped me bring forth the best in me in the moments I operated from that place. Some call this state; our better angels.
Compassion for Others
If there is one thing we can say about this world we inhabit... it is relational. Everything we know about ourselves is in relation to everything else. It seems like life here is some sort of grand experiment in what can be created individuality and collectively.
Although it is easy to see the shortcomings we humans have in terms of our basic instincts and drives, over time the pattern that was revealed to me was that I got better at managing my own challenges if I consciously worked at it. Like anything else you want to be good at, it takes lots of practice and failure. I had many teachers along the way that guided me. Hence my journey into my own personal development over that last 15 years and my curiosity about the stories that others told about how they made sense of things. In a sense it has been the completion of my education. The most up to date/complete view that I have found of what we call reality.
All the great spiritual traditions teach that compassion begins with standing in the shoes of other. However, staying interested and engaged with others was sometimes a challenge for me. Partly because of my own uncertainty I suspect. It was sometimes all I could do to manage my own stuff or I would over compensate by going very big, confident, and appearing very sure of myself. Got a lot of stuff done successfully that way. Yet, when I think of my most joyous moments, they usually include being part of a family, group or creative team. My Integral work with Ken Wilber over the last 10 years has taught me a lot about taking multiple perspectives and how to inhabit them, even though they may not be my own. For me, this has helped me act in a more generative way towards myself and others.
What is Spirit Up To?
This was a question that did not occur to me until the later part of this life. I certainly had a sense of something larger than myself moving through the world earlier. At first, I found the greatest source of that in nature. This question however got expanded by my work with Ken Wilber. If you believe that everything in this realm is spirit (creative life force or whatever you want to call it) then with all the obvious challenges we experience in our own lives and the culture, it is natural to wonder what is spirit truly up to here in that moment? Why isn’t it just love and light? Are the challenges also part of what is manifesting?
My experience of this has suggested to me that life offers a great deal of creative tension between blessings and challenges. In some ways it is what prompted me to grow. I came to realize that without these challenges that stretch us out of our comfort zone, how do we actually grow UP? In the same ways our culture experiences something similar. If you accept, like I do, that Kosmic and worldly intelligence is increasing since the big bang, then in spite of the many setbacks, the general trend in our human culture is towards more compassion and love. And that is my experience of what Spirit is up to. Providing the dynamic field in which we learn, love and make choices. Try it… the next time you feel yourself constrict about anything, frame the challenge with the question of “what is spirit up to here” and see what happens. It doesn’t, in my experience, solve the challenge, but it let’s me hold it in a larger context so that growing up can occur.