Thursday, January 10, 2008

#27. Radical Honesty: The How-to of Ontogenesis

ARCHIVE. For a list of all my published posts:

A Quick Review: My previous four postings have been about ontogenesis, a technical word for our personal growth and development as it is understood from the neurological and anthropological perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism. The emphasis has been on what I call in post #22 the "other half of person": the social, communal and relational aspects of the mystery of our personal consciousness. 

This is in contrast to a dozen or so of my earlier posts which deal with the physical connection between person and cosmos; that is, with the link between the matter of the universe and ourselves as persons.

Entry #23 offers an overview of the Biogenetic Structuralist understanding of personal development as it takes place in the communal-social context, and next three posts (#24, #25 and #26) spell out its three main stages-- both from the perspectives of the human sciences and from an essentially religious view "with help from Uncle Louie."

One of my primary concerns has been to show that myth, ritual and symbol are understood in both perspectives to be the means or tools by which we are empowered-- in the highest phase of our conscious development-- to participate in the activity of the universe. Although long dismissed conventionally because of Western culture's "disenchantment of the world," myth, ritual and symbol are critically relevant to the emerging New Cosmology.

Along with the evolutionary worldview, myth, ritual and symbol have been of life-long personal interest and I hope to share further thoughts about them in future posts. But that's not the topic here. In this post I want to talk about something more fundamental: how we grow through the earlier stages of ontogenetic development to reach that mature stage of personal growth where participation in the cosmic process via myth, ritual and symbol is the norm.

Biogenetic Structuralists (as I described in post #25) and Thomas Merton (as I described in post #26) both refer to the third phase of ontogenesis as "contemplative experience" and "the highest form of cognition." Both also understand it to be nothing less than the mature stage of our personal development where we become creative contributors to the evolution of the universe.


As I said in post #25, the static worldview of previous centuries has been so strong and so persistent that we're simply not used to thinking about our personal growth in any context, let alone trying to make sense of it in terms of ideas such as "cosmology" and "ontogenesis."

But at the same time, the desire for personal growth and development is one of our most basic human experiences: even two and three-year olds talk about "When I get big" and "When I grow up." Ontogenetic development is in our genes; it's one of the primal forces of the cosmic process which we embody.

So the question is: If everything about us wants to grow, what holds us back? What prevents us from achieving the highest and most mature form of personal consciousness?

In the most basic sense, our personal participation in the cosmic evolutionary process begins when our neuro-gnostic conscious awareness first dawns in the embryonic bundle of nerve tissue when we are still in our mother's womb. It continues beyond birth through the stages of acquired beliefs in childhood and our ego-experiences in adolescence and young adulthood, to the full blooming of our personal mystery in the third, contemplative, phase of ontogenetic development.

At least it can do that. Obviously not all of us make it to that most mature stage of personal development which many spiritual traditions call "wisdom consciousness."

What prevents us? What holds us back?


If we can compare our development to the growth of a seed, it's clear that a seedling doesn't just sit there; it has to do something internally to continue its development into a healthy plant and to eventually reach its full-blooming mature stage. We, too, can't just sit back waiting for growth in awareness to occur; it doesn't happen automatically. As conscious beings, we have to consciously contribute to our conscious growth. It is, in fact, a major part of our essential human dignity that we have a role to play in our own personal development. "We make ourselves," as the famous anthropologist and archeologist V. Gordon Childe expressed it back in the 1930s.

This is one of the places where the biblical idea found Luke 19:26 makes good practical sense: "Those who have much will receive more, and those who have little will lose even that."

Not much growth in consciousness can happen if we're clueless. So it's important that we understand clearly what it is we have to do in order to continue to grow beyond the stages of embryonic awareness and childhood beliefs to the more mature ego-experience of adolescence and to the fully mature stage of personal participation in the cosmic process.

The question isn't just, "What holds us back?" It's also, "What do we personally need to contribute to our development?"


The best answer I know to that question comes, not surprisingly, from the human sciences: in this case from the world of psychotherapy. It's spelled out especially well in the writings of Washington DC psychotherapist Brad Blanton, specifically in his book Radical Honesty (Starhawk Publications, 2005).

I discovered Blanton's work while reading a newsletter of Rowe Center, a human potential conference center in Western Massachusetts with ties to the Unitarian Church. The description of a weekend workshop he was offering caught my attention, so I got a copy from my local library of his Radical Honesty and recognized, to my delight, that among other things it is a practical "how-to" book for moving through the developmental stages of belief, experience and participation.

Blanton doesn't mention Biogenetic Structuralism, but many of his ideas fit well with its evolutionary and anthropological perspectives. He emphasizes, for example, that "unity is in the nature of things" and "we are each creators of the universe out of our own being"-- an especially good way to express the neurological jargon phase "cognized environment." And he describes his work as "social psychotherapy," stressing that personal development takes place in a social-political context-- an especially good way to express what anthropology means by a culture's "cosmology."

Blanton even uses the same odd term ("the being"), just as Biogenetic Structuralism does, for "person" or "consciousness." It's an odd usage which takes some getting used to; but if you have been reading my previous four blog posts, you're already used to it. You are, at least, familiar with the term "ontogenesis," which literally means "the development of the being." My point here is that Blanton's work offers some very clear ideas about what each of us must contribute to our personal ontogenesis.


Blanton trained with Gestalt Therapy founder Fritz Pearls and started the first training program in Gestalt Therapy in 1971 in the Washington DC area, where he has been a psychotherapist in private practice for many years. He has written a half-dozen books, some translated into several languages, and he offers weekend workshops and eight-day conferences in the United States, Europe, Canada and Mexico. As a social reformer he has occasionally been arrested and spent time in jail due to his anti-war activities, all of which he says contributes to his ongoing education.

Blanton's central idea is that the primary cause of stress, depression and anger is "living in a story and lying to maintain it." Lying wears us out; and anxiety and burn-out can result in the severest kinds of psychological illness. What we have to do in order to move through the stages of our personal development is to tell the truth: we have to speak honestly about ourselves.

It sounds too easy, even simplistic, but when we hear what he's saying he is in fact providing the details for what might be called "the practice of ontogenesis." He's talking about what holds us back from personal development and what we need to do if our growth toward maturity is to continue rather than come to a premature dead end.


Blanton's basic understanding is that what holds us back is shame, guilt and embarrassment.

We feel guilty, for example, that we frequently and consistently violate the moral principles which have been imposed on us in the belief stage of personal development. And because we attempt to hide that fact, the result is stress: everything from mild anxiety to crippling, even suicidal, depression.

Blanton's main point is quite simple: via the imposition of cultural norms, the neurognostic self is made to feel guilty for being adventurous and creative, and the only healing possible is to acknowledge what we have avoided and kept hidden. We become free-- from the stress imposed by cultural beliefs and personal ego-experiences and for more mature personal development-- simply by telling the truth. Being radically honest about ourselves is the only way to grow as a person.


Obviously I can't do an adequate job in presenting Blanton's ideas here; I hope you might read Radical Honesty yourself. But I'm going to present a brief overview of some of his basic concepts, focusing on his understanding of what we need to do in order to move beyond the earlier stages of belief and ego-experience. This will provide, I hope, a sufficient context for an understanding of what he sees as the three levels of honesty, which I find remarkably parallel to the three stages of personal development that I've been writing about in recent blog entries. Blanton's three levels of honesty would seem to provide a kind of praxis-- a practical how-to-- for our ontogenetic development.


Overview. For the sake of our life's survival, we need to make use of both the beliefs passed on to us in childhood and our personal ego-experiences in adolescence. We can't do without them. But due to insecurity, those childhood beliefs and adolescent ego-experiences can become a conventional routine of moralistic principles, rules and roles which lead to stress: suffocation, suffering and grief. It's especially difficult to get out of adolescence; we can easily end up living in an imaginary world-- what Blanton calls the "story"-- in which we hide and lie to make ourselves look good and to defend ourselves against shame and embarrassment. If we get stuck in adolescence, we become victims of our own mind, trapped in the prison of our own immaturity.

The only way out is grounding, says Blanton: managing our indoctrination by being honest.

Instead of living in an imaginary world, where we have to lie and hide to avoid the reality of our shame, guilt and embarrassment, we can make use of our image-making power to free ourselves from that mental jail. We have to go beyond first-stage beliefs and second-stage adolescent ego-experiences if we are not just to survive but also to thrive. Rather than being insecure, we can trust the world and ourselves; the alternative to insecurity is to trust our body and the material laws of the universe, so that we become grounded in the here and now.

This creative transformation leads to health, wholeness and meaningfulness: instead of being victims, trapped in a mental prison, we can use of our minds to become artists. But it's only radical honesty that can free us for a creative and self-reliant life.


Level One. The first level of honesty is being honest about facts. With regard to the belief stage of our development, we need to be honest about the simple fact that we have not lived up to the ethical and moral principles passed on to us. It isn't so much our violation of those principles that is the problem; rather, what causes stress and anxiety is hiding that fact from others.

Blanton gives an example of a woman from a traditional religious family who secretly had an abortion at the age of 20. Guilt, shame and embarrassment prevented her from sharing that information with anyone for many years. She was in therapy for severe anxiety, and understood that she needed to stop hiding the fact of her past life from her parents. She tried many times to inform them, and only at the age of 35 was she finally able to do so.

Her father's reaction was, "Oh, thank God." He said, "We knew you had been wanting to tell us something for a long time; we thought that you must have a fatal illness." Note that the woman didn't need to tell anyone and everyone about the abortion, but only those from whom she had to work so hard to keep it a secret. It's the effort at lying, at hiding the data and living in a false story, that results in crippling stress, anxiety and grief.


Level Two. The second level of honesty relates to adolescent ego-experience: it means being honest about our post-childhood thoughts and feelings.

"Thoughts and feelings" may sound trivial, and being honest about them may (again) seem simplistic, but we need to keep in mind that Blanton is talking about thoughts and feelings as conceptual judgments and emotional evaluations which have resulted from the ego-experiences of our adolescence. It's the effort it takes to hide our personal judgments and emotions that results in stress and even hatred-- just as does the effort to hide the facts about our past selves.

I don't need to give an example here; we all can provide numerous examples of overgrown adolescents who can't stop judging and criticizing themselves and for that reason have become super-critical and moralistic with regard to everyone else. Blanton says that the better we get at playing hide-and-seek during adolescence the harder it is to grow up, and that many end up trapped in perpetual adolescence.


Level Three. At the third level of honesty we need to speak the truth not about the facts of the past or about our adolescent conceptions or emotional values but about our own self-images. If the first level of honesty looks to the past, this third level is more future-focused. Having a picture of ourselves-- as we are now, or as we want to be in the future-- isn't itself a problem; what is, is the effort needed when-- out of shame, guilt or embarrassment-- we try to keep that picture of ourselves hidden from others.

This may be the hardest level of honesty to understand. Most of us recognize that we need to grow up, to get over childhood. But in our contemporary adolescent culture, it's not easy even to see that we need to get out of adolescence. And Blanton says the odds are against us; the great majority never get beyond the stage of adolescent pretense because we use up our energies in hiding our self-image from others.

He gives an example of adolescent pretense that can be seen in cold weather at any street corner school bus stop: "Many teenagers would rather look cool, while freezing to death waiting for the school bus, than wear a warm jacket that is not as 'in' as the shirt they are wearing." We may laugh at that example, but we need to keep in mind that many people are still trying to look cool in their 30s, 40s and 50s. (If that seems like an exaggeration, just think of all the online ads that come in daily for replica watches and penis-enlargers.)


Isn't it amazing that to get out of adolescence we have to share with others what most embarrasses us about ourselves! And that sharing our self-image-- in contrast to putting on a show-- is such hard work. Blanton says it "feels like dying."

I'm aware that my brief overview of these ideas is extremely superficial and I hope, as I said above, that you might read Blanton's book yourself. It's full of treasures. It contains, for example, the best description I've ever seen of the Buddhist understanding of annata (the no-self) and also the best description I know of what Christians call "grace" (as in Amazing Grace).

Another "treasure" is the quaternary perspective which shows up in Blanton's presentation of the three levels of honesty. If you are familiar with the Jungian idea of the four-fold functions of consciousness or with the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator, you may have noticed that the progression in the levels of honesty goes from Sensing (in the belief stage) to the judgment functions of Thinking and Feeling (in the ego-experience stage) and to the image-making Intuitive function (in the most mature stage). This quaternary perspective allows us a wholistic understanding of conscious awareness that is invaluable for our self-understanding. I hope talk about it in some detail in a future post.


I have several additional thoughts about Blanton's work which I also want to share. They don't seem to fit elsewhere in my brief overview, but they seem important enough not to leave out.

One thought is that, as Blanton puts it, "freedom is a psychological achievement." He mentions in his Introduction that according to Hugh Thomas, author of A History of the World (Harpercollins, 1982), the greatest medical advance in history has been garbage collection!

And Blanton says that the greatest psychological advance in history (which he optimistically sees as "just around the corner") will involve a similar awareness of our need to clean up our communal world. (Never before has our global need been so obvious to achieve a cleaned-up environment and a cleaned-up psycho-social situation-- especially in terms of our political and religious leadership. Obvious, at least, to everyone beyond the belief stage of personal development. So Blanton's optimism may not be as unfounded as it first might seem.)

A second interesting point is the question that probably comes to each of us when we are thinking about the various levels of honesty: Where am I? Which level best describes "where I'm at" in terms of my growth and development? Blanton offers a clear criterion: "The sound of freedom is laughter."

A third interesting point is Blanton's comment that underlying all of our stress, depression and grief, there also may be found a layer of joy. Freedom, laughter and joy! Those words don't often appear in science writing-- even in the literature of the human sciences.

Finally, in sharing my thoughts via this blog about the convergence of science and religion, I have consistently tried to provide examples of how similar ideas, although usually expressed quite differently, can be found in the two very different perspectives of contemporary science and religion. For this posting on the "how-to" of personal development, a religious expression is readily available similar to the understanding from the human sciences of our need for radical honesty to grow and develop. Most likely it has already come to your mind.

"Don't be afraid. Speaking honestly will set you free." John 8:32

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.