I've been pondering a question that's been on my mind for years. Each of us, when we are born, are completely dependent on our caretakers for our survival. The more our caretaker provides a loving, safe environment for us, the more curious, engaged, and self-reliant we become. Even in non-ideal family conditions with neglecting, emotionally unstable, or ignorant parents, all children learn how to crawl, walk, speak, and interact with others. There is clearly some internal instinct for self-directed learning in all of us, else we would never have learned these things. Yet after a certain age it is assumed that we need to be coerced into learning. If this is an innate human capacity, why does it disappear (if it actually does)? Somewhere along the way we forgot things we should not have forgotten, things we probably didn't even realize we knew.
What is clear is that talking, walking, and socializing were learned by repeated trial and error. Out of a natural curiosity and desire to engage with the world, we began to act (crawl, babble, play, etc.) and to use the consequences of our action as feedback to improve. Not only is falling down a clear case of “learning from your mistakes”, but even our basic kinesthetic senses cannot develop if infants are not allowed to eventually move around. Newborn monkeys kept blindfolded never develop a sense of sight. Instincts, it seems, need to be activated for them to function and develop properly. In many cases, it does seem that even an “unactivated” sense can be reactivated later by the appropriate stimuli. For example, children who didn’t learn their first language when they were children (due to abuse, or deafness), can still learn some language later. The extent to which there exists some kind of “critical period” for learning, for example, a first language, is not fully understood.
Understanding this instinctual learning process is key to understanding individual agency and growth as well as the complicated interplay between society and individual.
For example, why is it that we can know (intellectually) what we need to do (say, stop drinking in the case of an alcoholic), but not do it? Why can we not repair an engine after reading a book about repairing an engine? Why learn grammar for English or for any other language if we never actually talk or write by way of grammar rules, but rather intuitively, by what "feels right"? From these examples, of which myriad more can be found, it is clear that intuitive, embodied knowledge and intellectual knowledge are two different things. Embodied knowledge is knowledge stored “in our body” in that we can more or less do the right thing without much conscious control. It is intimately tied to doing, and seems to be a function of the amount and type of hands-on experience we have, and how we relate to that experience. The trial and error process as we learned to speak, walk, and make friends led to intuitive embodied knowledge, for example. Of course, some of those lessons may have been suboptimal strategies, requiring unlearning later in life. Regardless, we do not “think” about what to do when applying embodied knowledge, rather we intuitively or instinctually feel into what the appropriate next step is. We do not know all our words in advance when we speak, for example. We only have a general intuitive sense of the point we want to get across, and the words arrange themselves to a greater or lesser degree depending on our level of confidence and familiarity with the subject matter and the social context at that time.
Intellectual knowledge, however, never translates directly into action. In fact, the more we try to apply intellectual knowledge via conscious control, the easier it is to overwhelm our embodied self. Overthink our words, and they stop flowing. Think too hard about a baseball swing, and you can’t hit the ball to save your life. Think even too hard about how we're walking, and walking becomes rigid, clunky, and inefficient. Intellectual knowledge translated into conscious control can interfere with our embodied knowledge in the act of doing. The strength of intellectual or conscious knowledge is not in directly controlling our action, but in deciding what action is appropriate. It can put our actions in context or shine a new light on them. A handbook or manual, for example, can inform us of a new process and guide us through the process of training our embodied sense. But it cannot replace it. A car mechanic may need to look up in a handbook a new troubleshooting or maintenance procedure. His first attempt to implement it may be clumsy as his body attempts to translate old patterns into this new situation. A complete novice, with no mechanical experience, has to do everything consciously, and the process is agonizing and frustrating.
On a side note, colleagues often swap “war stories” with one another, a seemingly sociable activity that also serves the important function of trading experience. As we discover more about the innate “mirroring” of others by way of our nervous system, and the hypnotic role of emotionally-engaging storytelling, I would not be surprised if it was discovered that more than simply intellectual knowledge was being traded in the telling of war stories.
Mimicry is the chief method by which our actions (which translates into embodied knowledge) take shape. Again, this is particularly noticeable in the speech patterns of the young. They talk like their parents, and later like their peers in school. We see something someone else has done or is doing, and we try it out ourselves. Very little, if anything, can be created in a vacuum, with no influences, instead being a combination or modification of existing things. In the case of action, these ingredients come from watching others do. We know of mirror neurons, the physiological basis for empathy and “learning by modeling”. When someone does something in front of us, mirror neurons in our brain light up as though we were the one to do it. The extent to which we mirror someone, however, is only just now being understood. This mirroring seeps down even to the posture we hold. When someone walks in who is obviously happy or angry, we can feel their strong emotion as a sort of energy field before they even say anything. This is the result of us mirroring their emotions even on a basic postural level.
This talk of embodied versus conscious knowledge illustrates a deeper split in human beings. We are creatures defined by doing. We are always doing something. Imagine someone who knew the theory of eating but didn’t know how to actually perform the act of eating. It is a silly example, but it illustrates how deeply we take for granted that we are creatures first and foremost of action, not of thought. Embodied knowledge is always necessary, even in “intellectual pursuits”. A researcher may be dealing in abstract thoughts, but the way he goes about his research and study is still an act of doing translated into embodied knowledge: knowing where to look, reading, synthesizing, writing, publishing. To reiterate: embodied knowledge is the more fundamental and central knowledge, as without it we would be helpless babes, who know only how to cry and suckle a tit at birth. Conscious knowledge, as useful as it is (which is incredibly so!), can only be useful on a foundation of embodied knowledge. It is easy to understand why we over-identify with conscious, intellectual knowledge. Without our thoughts and speech, it would seem eerily silent inside. But we can never think our way into answers. Nothing can ever replace the simple necessity of living our own experiences, living the questions in our life and living our way into the answers. For thought to be effective, it must be accompanied by corresponding shifts in our physiology (a feeling of release of tension, for example) and our relationship to our context (our actions and reactions).
This fallacy points to a deeper issue of our consciousness. We think of ourselves as top-down commanders, identifying with our rational, language-based brain, sending commands to the rest of our body. That isn't the case. We're composed of at least three brains, hierarchically stacked in order of our evolution: the reptilian brain (which deals in sensations and is the source of our instinct), the mammalian brain (which deals in emotions and arousal), and the primate brain (responsible for language, empathy, and conscious thought). And it functions bottom up, from the reptilian brain to the primate (thinking) brain, as research on trauma is demonstrating (more on that later). We have sensations in our body that act as instincts to move us towards goodness (a beautiful women, a breath-taking landscape, a well-designed tool or a job well done) and away from danger, pain, and generally unpleasurable things. Like the instinct to suckle a tit as a babe and the instinct to learn and interact. Take curiosity, for example. This is a visceral, gut feeling pushing us on a sensational level to act upon our instinct to explore, learn, and adapt. This instinct towards what Peter Levine calls “goodness” and away from “badness” is the chief operating principle of any organism, and the other two brains serve this end. It is moving us constantly towards a point of dynamic equilibrium. As our instincts move us towards goodness and away from badness, this equilibrium point in its highest point or actualization of instincts is by definition an equilibrium of goodness.
The other two brains support this end. The mammalian brain deals in emotions to let us know when an instinct has been satisfied (happiness) or thwarted (fear, anger, sadness, disgust). Interestingly, all five of these emotions, plus surprise, have been found to be universal, including their manifestation as unique and identifiable facial expressions and potentially their unique effect on the sympathetic nervous system. The primate brain, meanwhile, allows us to cooperate with language, empathy, and community to increase our collective chances of moving towards goodness.
This is perhaps a bold claim that the intuitive brain, with its basic operating principle, is the one driving the whole show. To explain, we’ll look at the phenomenon of trauma. Trauma is quite literally unexpressed impulsions, or instincts, felt as tension that is trapped in the body. When we experience a fight or flight instinct but we are unable to act on it, that unexpressed reaction is stored as tension in our nerves and muscles. As our body is constantly communicating the status of its instinctual impulses to the brain in the form of sensations, it continues to communicate that danger is present even though the danger is long since passed. The trauma remains as long as the fight or flight reflex is unexpressed. In trauma victims (which can include anyone from combat veterans, victims of violent crimes or accidents, to emotionally or physically abused children), their body is essentially always in fight/flight or freeze mode until the aborted reaction is resolved.
Pavlov noted in the early 20th century that traumatized dogs, dogs that were repeatedly exposed to danger from which they could not escape (they were in cages) seemed to have lost the will to live. They were perpetually frozen in a state of traumatic shock, and their higher brain functions had shut down. They were quite obviously “no longer themselves”, as previously calm dogs became violent, and aggressive dogs became submissive and cowardly. They had what has been variously called combat fatigue, shell shock, and PTSD. They lost what Pavlov baptized the "purpose reflex". In humans, this is why someone who feels disconnected and lonely can feel that way even around other people. The part of their brain responsible for empathy and human connection has literally shut itself off. This "purpose reflex" is our sense of self, drive, meaning, community, connection. When there is a kink down the chain, in the instinctual or emotional brain, the functions "above" it do not function properly. It is like damming a river: the water pools in a lake and there is no more water for those downstream.
From this we can accept a key assertion: the extent to which we express our instincts is the extent to which all of our brain is operating at full capacity. Of course, we can't constantly hit everyone who triggers a fight-or-flight reflex in us today, however, which is where part of the disconnect occurs. But then, our out-of-proportion reactions may exactly be due to an impaired nervous system still in survival mode from earlier trauma- when we are feeling good, we don’t get upset as easily. The closer our bodies are to our equilibrium point, manifested in a flow state, the easier it is to gently oscillate around it, unperturbed by what then seem like minor annoyances. Before we see an instinctual reaction fan into a full blown flame, through mindful body awareness practices, we can "honor", integrate, and dissipate the emerging instinctual reaction in a way that doesn't cause permanent, stored trauma in our bodies. Still, to the extent that we can operate on our instincts, as a biological imperative we must. Anger, for example, can be transformed into setting firm boundaries with others and redefining the terms of a relationship.
How many of our modern neuroses, ailments, and malaise result because we suppress the very thing that makes us alive? One need only look at the sexual repression still simmering beneath the surface to see an example of blocked life force that still rears its ugly head: manipulative pick-up communities, increasingly violent or just plain weird pornography, date-rape, sexual impotency or dysfunction. Because the instinctual brain is intimately connected to the visceral sensations in our body, suppressed instincts cause a host of somatic ailments as well. After integrating trauma (ie unexpressed instincts stored as tension in the body), these ailments disappear.
Our bodies and our minds are one and the same. We only feel a split when we dissociate from our bodies as a defense mechanism to avoid feeling bad. If we can't feel bad, however, we also can't feel good. But just as we cannot think of the internet without seeing it as a distributed, interconnected web of nodes and information, we cannot separate the mind, the brain, and the body. Empathy, as already noted, is reflected and is indeed a function of the body, and trauma begins in the aborted physiological reactions of the body. Psychological states are reflected in body and posture as well. Famous psychologist Paul Ekman, dedicating his career to uncovering how emotions are reflected in the face, has repeatedly found in his studies that consciously directing our facial muscles into the positions they spontaneously assume when we display a certain emotions causes us to actually feel that emotion. The emotion is arising from the internal (muscular and resulting nerve impulses) arrangement of our body, not from any external stimuli nor from an angering thought or memory. So what causes what- does our posture make us angry, or does being angry affect our posture? Probably both. Mind and body form an interconnected, two-way feedback system reacting to external and internal stimuli. Our identity must include the entirety of our organism, not simply a disembodied mind. The way we treat our bodies, that is, ourselves, is exactly our level of self-trust and self-esteem. Our relationship to ourselves is our relationship to the world and to others, because the act of relating is fundamentally the same.
When our body/brain (really the same thing, or rather interconnected parts of the same organism) is functioning correctly- that is, our rational and emotional brains serving our instincts- we are constantly moving back towards our equilibrium point of goodness, giving rise to a sense of flow. Annoyances and inconveniences don't bother us, as we are the epitome of focused, alert ease. When we ignore our instincts, our emotions send a warning sign in the form of an emotion: fear, guilt, shame, anger. When we ignore those emotions via our thinking, rational brain, we have effectively ignored our intuitive brain, disrupting our natural, gentle oscillation about our equilibrium point. Because the sensations and emotions associated with a thwarted instinct can be quite intense, we begin to ignore our sensations, compounding the problem by inhibiting our ability to sense further intuitions. You probably have had an experience of being in the moment, enjoying a day, when ignoring an instinct, urge, or whim has knocked you out of it. It can be as simple as seeing a pretty girl, and talking yourself out of saying anything. Snap. The flow is broken.
If we do not know how to correctly process this self-thwarted instinct, even though we wouldn't call it trauma, it can become a sort of self-inflicted micro-trauma that accumulates slowly in our body like a heavy metal. A little bit won't hurt and can be dissipated naturally. But too much over too long a period can add up, creating a trauma-like reaction in our bodies simply because we ignored our instincts for so long that our body's communication structure essentially withers, compartmentalizing our functions and impeding the movement back towards equilibrium. Besides this micro-trauma, our natural learning process is also disrupted. Moshe Feldenkrais points out that when a man is poked in the foot during his sleep, he moves his foot. If he cannot move his foot, he wakes up. Only conscious control can keep the offended limb in a place where it can be continually wounded. “Naturally, one learns from experience, by correcting earlier patterns of behavior. When a person continues to use a stereotyped pattern of behavior instead of one suitable to the present reality, the learning process has come to a standstill.” When we are disconnected from our instinctual sensations and their accompanying emotions, we get no natural feedback from our bodies by which to internally evaluate our actions and their consequences.
When we are constantly in survival mode because of accumulated trauma, functions of our primate, thinking brain associated with language, empathy, human connection, self-awareness, and self-control turn off. Because our emotions and sensations of danger are so overwhelming and painful, we turn away from them. But if we can't feel bad, we also can't feel good. Addictions thrive as a result, either to feel something, anything, or to block the pain. And addictions are addictions precisely because they mimic and supplant the natural bodily sensations that are our instincts. The urge for a beer, a cigarette, or a porn-induced orgasm can be just as real and visceral as the embodied feeling of hunger after a day-long fast. When we have many addictions, it becomes even harder to tune into what our body's true instincts are telling us, even after we've worked past any stored trauma to dissolve the lingering fight/flight/freeze response. Any attempt to know and trust oneself and one’s body must then start with excising addictions.
It takes trust to listen to our gut, our visceral instincts. As thinking humans, we're so obsessed with control! But we also must realize that there is something greater than "us", greater than our thinking mind, operating in our own bodies. Our thinking mind is at its service in aiding us to move towards goodness. We can usually choose what we do, but we don't choose what we like. And it helps to realize that our instincts have our best interest at heart. In a healthy body, instincts keep us moving towards exactly what we want in life, if we honor them (I realize this is circular logic, a bit like the chicken and the egg. Do we have the instinct because it's good, or is it good because it's an instinct? Up to you to decide). The lengths our instincts go to keep us alive and thriving is nothing sort of humbling. We tense up, eyes wide and scanning, at an unexpected noise to be ready to move in case it's dangerous. We feel tense around someone else who is tense, in case they spot danger that we don't see, or if they’re a stranger, in case they are dangerous. We release our tension when we are around someone who is calm, loving, and relaxed because that certainly means we have arrived somewhere safe. Tense muscles, an angry snarl, and a shot of adrenaline gives us what we need to escape or fight our way back to our loved ones. When annihilation is imminent, our bodies release opioids, more potent than morphine, to dull the pain of death and slow down time in case the opportunity arises to slip away before the vasty nothingness overtakes us.
Instincts away from danger and pain are easier to study and easier to relate to our struggle for survival. Paul Shepherd wrote, "As surely as we hear the blood in our ears, the echoes of a million midnight shrieks of monkeys, whose last sight of the world was the eyes of a panther, have their traces in our nervous systems." If that is true, then it is also true that in our nerves we have the echoes of a million midnight shrieks of ecstasy, the culmination of what Casanova called the Great Act. Our ancestors had to have had what it took to move towards goodness, otherwise we would not be here. That is in our blood. It is carved in our nerves as deeply as any other instinct. It is the epitome of our instincts towards goodness. By the way, this doesn't mean a quick pump and dump, either. Up until the 1800s in Europe, it was taken for granted that a woman had to have an orgasm to conceive. And lo, modern science has discovered that a female orgasm does indeed make it easier for her to conceive. The instinct that moves us towards beauty in others is the same instinct that moves us towards beauty and excellence in all other areas of our life, whether it be a beautiful landscape or a beautiful tool built with our sweat and blood, or the beauty of a job well done.
The extent to which we feel and act on our instincts to move towards what goodness means for each of us is the extent to which we are in alignment with ourselves. When we are in alignment with ourselves, we create a virtuous cycle whereby our intuition and ability to listen to our instincts is constantly improving as we are closer to our natural point of psychic, dynamic equilibrium. We must act and only then begin approximating ourselves to the deepest manifestation of our instincts. If we never act, our intuitive sense of our instinct will always be too crude to ever give us a good direction. When we act, our natural learning process can begin anew, and we gradually make ever finer course corrections. Any step will do, as long as we are willing to honestly take and apply the feedback we are always receiving from the world but are normally too deaf to hear.
Arrested development of our intuitive sensing function can always be resumed. We had it to at least some extent when we were infants, learning to speak and crawl. And results from therapies on patients and experiments on animals has shown that, once free and spontaneous engagement with the world and oneself is uninhibited, sensory functions return. You may have heard of the experiment where special goggles in an experiment caused the vision of subjects to invert, and that after a fortnight or so, their vision returned to normal. Their brain had compensated for the inverted vision and flipped it back to normal. Less known is that this group was permitted to interact with the world, while a second group was prevented from moving around and interacting with the world. Their vision stayed inverted. Engagement with the world is the only way to hone our senses, including our intuitive sense. This process is largely subconscious, as the language of the intuition is that of sensations written across the medium of the body. We cannot think our way back to intuitive accuracy. Rather, as with Feldenkrais’ example of moving away the foot while sleeping, conscious control typically interferes with this process. We can only act, trusting our bodies to do what they know how to do. Our conscious awareness can help frame and contextualize the action, but can never replace it or control it.
The highest manifestation of our instincts at their natural dynamic equilibrium point what has been alternatively referred to as purpose, passion, bliss, flow, or even whim. The nature of our instincts to point us towards this actualization is our internal compass, pointing us towards our own North. It is an interesting coincidence that a compass is also called a wind rose. In order to read our wind rose, we must be present in the here and now in order to feel the instinctual bodily sensations that move us toward or away from something. Intuition cannot be felt if you are stuck in the past, which is one of the identifiers of a traumatized brain. Mystics say that in the Here and Now, a rose is always blooming. It's simply a matter of noticing it.
We can also see that there can be too much conscious knowledge, which can never replace embodied knowledge. Knowing theories of life can never replace the act of living life. While theory can give descriptive language, a framework for understanding, and a new perspective to our actions, it must always be tied to an application to be meaningful. And lack of conscious knowledge is typically not an issue in our information-saturated society. What we need is more saddle time with the phenomena we feel drawn towards, more time for our natural intuitive sense to calibrate to a freely-chosen, viscerally-engaging challenge. And challenges there must be. A life devoted solely to comfort and sensorial pleasure quickly becomes boring and meaningless. Without challenge, we cannot hone our intuitive sense. Without challenge we cannot experience a state of flow and aliveness, that wondrous state where we seem to melt into the infinities of existence. Without challenge we cannot learn, we cannot change, we cannot live up to our ideals, and we cannot actualize the highest manifestation of our intuition. We cannot experience the full richness of life.
In describing a plan for a more free-form and engaging graduate program for psychology students, Carl Rogers explains that his plan “is built on the hypothesis that the student has the potentiality and the desire to learn, providing that a suitable environment can be established. Very few educators believe this, yet there is research evidence even in lower forms of life to support this view. Both rats and flatworms choose more complex environments, with more difficult problems to solve, when they are given the choice." It is only when we feel so out of touch with ourselves- our instinctual or embodied selves, what we might call today our authentic selves- that we feel the enervating urge to flee from it all and permanently disconnect. Our relationship to the challenges that inevitably arise out of our control, or that we consciously seek, is indicative of our maturity and actualization. A mature person, which is to say a free and responsible person, takes direct action rather than roundabout action. He can correctly interpret feedback to guide his actions. The immature person cannot adapt adequately to the environment because of unprocessed, limiting, and untrue associations arresting his development. Unsure of his own agency, he takes roundabout, indirect action. The difference can be seen in the way a mature adult sets personal boundaries kindly but firmly, whereas the immature person thinks only to rely on passive aggressive emotional manipulation. As the body and mind are one, so this “lack of spine” will be reflected in his posture and inability to experience joy and flow. Caught in the past, at a time when they were acutely dependent on circumstances outside their control, the experience must be integrated before freedom can be embraced, else the instinctual/embodied self will constantly seek security. Freedom and security are usually mutually exclusive opposites.
The mature person, in a sense, is free from their past and comfortable in themselves, which leaves them free to pursue their dynamic psychic equilibrium, the highest manifestation of their natural instinctual drive towards goodness. This is not freedom from others or a rejection of society, per se, or the creation of a moral-less psychopath who wantonly causes mayhem as he wishes. Freedom can never be separated from responsibility. The more aware we become of our freedom, as freedom is a function of awareness, the more aware we become of the consequences. In awareness of the consequences lies the responsibility for the actions we take and their consequences. This responsibility is intricately tied to the human instinct we all share to move towards human connection and community while preserving individual agency. We are social creatures, that much is clear. The empathic faculty is obviously crucial for survival in a tribe, as it facilitates understanding and connection while allowing the communication of danger and safety faster than words could. Nor is it likely that we could develop language without an innate empathic capability. We gain pleasure from helping others, from feeling seen by another, from creating value for others, from working together and, in men in particular, from friendly competition with one another. Even the sex act in us is less about reproduction that it is about the pleasure of union. In fact, we cannot have a sense of self without a sense of the other. We would have no mirror through which to see ourselves, to see our way of being relative to others. Community is meaning. Everything we do is in relation to others, everything we create or consume is for the other.
Beginning with psychologist Carl Rogers and his research on what he called Basic Encounter Groups, continuing with trauma researchers, and widely seen in various practices today, we know that when we are free to express ourselves- body, mind, and spirit- universal human qualities emerge. "In persons who are moving toward greater openness to their experiencing, there is an organismic commonality of value directions. These common directions are of such kinds as to enhance the development of the individual himself, of others in his community, and to contribute to the survival and evolution of his species."
Carl Rogers lists these qualities emerging from an acceptance and expression of oneself. By definition, self-acceptance and expression emphasizes our deep instinctual self from whence intuition arises.
- They move away from facades and drop pretense.
- They move away from oughts
- They move away from meeting expectations of others
- Being real is positively valued
- Self-direction is positively valued
- One's self and feelings become positively valued
- Being a process is positively valued
- Comes to value openness to all inner and outer experience.
- Sensitivity and acceptance of others is valued
- Deep relationships are valued
You may be familiar with Stanley Milgram’s conformance to authority experiments. In a famous study, he showed that most people, when coerced by an authority figure, are capable of delivering fatal levels of electric shock to an innocent person, even as the person (who was an actor heard over an intercom) screamed in pain and eventually fell silent, as though unconscious. Less known is the personality profile of the people who did conform versus the minority who did not. The people who conformed were conformists in the rest of their lives. Those that refused to deliver the electric shocks were, in their day-to-day lives, “open, free, spontaneous, expressive, natural, free from pretense, and unaffected.” The independent person, understood himself, his values, and his experience, had a healthy skepticism of authority and refused to compromise their basic human values. This is precisely the person Ralph Waldo Emerson describes in Self-Reliance. Emerson is not, as is widely thought, advocating a rejection of society and human connection. He is referring specifically to self-reliance of spirit, of soul. Emerson describes the conflict we face: It is easy to be yourself in isolation, and easy to follow the crowd around others. This can only be resolved by discovering, calibrating, and constantly orienteering via your embodied compass, your wind rose, naturally leading to the expression of your highest self. By freeing ourselves to express, in words and actions, our deepest, truest inner self, we recover the latent quality of what Emerson called self-reliance. We become capable of being our own man or woman while still deeply connecting with the world and our community. Personal discovery and recreation must occur in some form for this to take place. The narrative may be different for each: in some, a sense of uncovering or peeling back; in others, a sense of molding, shaping, or carving into something new. Certainly it was taken for granted, until rather recently, that men had to actively transmute boys into the next generation of men.
Children are dependent, and comfort and security is crucial to their process as they gradually develop a sense of agency, self, esteem, trust, and self-knowledge. This need or search for security is essentially an immature instinct, in that it is one we must grow out of. Rites of initiation confront the child with deep wounds and allow them to be integrated, and signal the time when the search for comfort or security is no longer the overriding operative principle, but rather service to the community. Since we are social creatures, mature instincts towards whatever each person’s point of equilibrium of goodness is must always be towards greater value for the community. However, any institution, organization, or community is constantly initiating us into one of two extremes: oppression and disconnection, or liberation and affirmation. A slow death, or a full life. Disconnection from our selves, or a celebration of our instincts and our movement towards beauty, excellence, and goodness. Unfortunately, so many of our institutions in our "free" Western civilization still initiate us into disconnection from ourselves, and hence from others as well- remember, when we are not in alignment with ourselves, our social brain functions literally begin to shut down. Institutions can be trusted to the extent that they initiate into self-reliance.
The orientation of our institutions, family included, shape our identity. In the same way an oppressive institution uses a top-down command and control structure to ever more closely circumscribe the behavior of those under it the further down the structure extends, we internalize the external voices of authority and come to treat ourselves the same way. This is success, and I must get it. This is who I am, anything that does not fit within it is a distraction. If I don’t get there, or I am bored, it is because I’m not trying hard enough. Or, like a liberating institution, identity can be organic, gradually unfolding to incorporate new experience and feedback from the acts of daily living, a tree unfolding from the simple seed. To this end, any personal initiative or adventure we undertake must be to peel back the layers and discover just exactly what our core as men and women is underneath all the layers of conditioning. The "I want" underneath all the "I should," trusting that as beings born for community, for being useful, this holy sense can only ever lead us in the right direction; trusting that all we need is within us if we have but the openness to learn from our experiences and change. And if it is mere whim at last, so be it. For what else do we have if we do not have the integrity of our inner experience? In humbly and faithfully following this calling, we can only ever be riding in the right direction, ironically enough back to where we all started: an organism clear of tension, of pre-programmed responses, able to respond to each moment anew and allow life force to flow forth cleanly and vibrantly. To commence this adventure is to undertake a journey into the depths of ourselves and our nature. To be true to our nature, whatever manifestation that may take, is indeed a holy task and truly the only task. Everything we need is within us already, all the energy and life force of the universe waiting to be poured forth in a creative flash. Like water, waiting to stream down towards the ocean, or fire, ready to leap forth, lighting and warming those around it. Dam the stream, and the water stagnates. Refuse the fire fuel and watch it extinguish, and feel the cold seep in. We must relearn to tend this fire, else we have no heat and no light. Everything is already in us, ready to be drawn forth, and that which is within us is all there is in life.
...sees much and knows much