(For the full book, click here).
This is where I start to move out of my comfort zone.
I had a six month psychotic episode in 2011. Thankfully I kept it hidden well enough that I didn’t end up in the psychiatric system (I cover this story fully here).
An essential part of my recovery was discovering Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising.
It is in that book that I discovered Model Agnosticism, a metaphysical orientation that essentially says; I don’t know and you don’t know and that's okay. We can’t ever know, but we can always be evolving our perspectives.
That might sound trite, but to a 21 year old who thought they were trapped inside of a maliciously created computer program, it’s the difference between a life with paranoid flavored psychosis and someone capable of living the life I live today.
The ‘I don’t know and you don’t know and that’s okay,’ saved my life. I can’t understate this.
However, a result of Model Agnosticism is that for the last decade, I have never felt strongly enough about a way of being or an ethic that I would be willing to tell others they should follow.
In philosophical terms, Model Agnosticism has resulted in me never asserting oughts.
We live in an era where having no convictions about how humans ought to be is a sign of spiritual depth and wisdom.
The result of this is that people in first and second world consciousnesses are the only ones active in politics and social reform while the thrice born among us hold soft opinions, softly.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I needed to write these last four articles to bring me to the point to begin my journey of ought-ing.
What ought you be? How ought you be? Who ought you be? These are hard questions for people who feel pride in not oughting anything.
I Ought to be a Dharma Artist
There is a Buddhist legend that the first bodhisattva was a woman named Guanyin. She had devoted herself to Buddha’s eightfold path and after many decades of digesting her karma, she reached a level of consciousness where she was beginning to ascend. At the very last moment before her full liberation, she heard the cries of all the conscious beings still trapped in the wheel of life. In this moment her concentration faltered and the transition failed. She was back firmly in the world of desire and aversion.
She then made a vow: "Should I ever become disheartened in saving sentient beings, may my body shatter into a thousand pieces."
She then renewed her practice, and after many decades arrived again at the moment of permanent transcendence from the wheel of life. But again she heard the cries of all the conscious creatures still stuck in samsara, and in that moment she doubted and she shattered into a thousand pieces.
As the legend goes, in this moment of shattering she had enough concentration to ask the Buddha for help. The Buddha heard her call and turned her shattered pieces into 1000 hands of compassion with an eye of wisdom in their palms, and each piece was placed in the heart of 1000 beings who were still stuck in the wheel of life.
And thus her vow birthed the process of seeding bodhisattvas in the wheel of life; souls who carry her vow of compassion, to help all conscious beings in the wheel find their liberation.
– – –
I love this story.
In my best moments, I see the world as a vast living interconnected body.
Gaia is the skeleton, plants and animals are the muscles and ligaments, trees are her lungs, and humans are her neurons.
In our current state, the planetary body is sick in the same way a psychotic is sick. The thing about humans is that we have the capacity to become like stem cells. We have the capacity to transform ourselves into what is needed.
This myth, this useful lie, suggests that the kind of being we ought to be, if we are capable of being, is to become a stem cell.
When a caterpillar descends into its cocoon, it doesn’t transform from caterpillar to a butterfly. It actually digests itself and becomes a kind of goo that scientists call imaginal cells.
These are undifferentiated stem cells that can become any type of cell.
The fact that this exists in biology and that we can observe it is one of the most majestic discoveries I’ve ever encountered.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that many separate cultures share etymology between the words they use for butterfly and the words they use for psyche.
I believe each of us, in the privacy of our own heart, knows what kind of cell we are being asked to become to help heal the collective body that is humanity.
A Dharma artist is my personal myth of what it means to be a Bodhisattva in the 21st century.
A Dharma artist is born when the individual has digested their first two worlds, descended into the cocoon of Model Agnosticism, and finally decided on what they will become.
It’s more of a listening than a deciding. They decide to listen to their dharma.
The metaphor breaks down here because the unique task of the human is that there is no end to how many times we can re-imagine ourselves.
It seems to be that with each re-imagining we emerge with a new life task. Maybe that life task takes our entire life, maybe we fulfill it and enter into another transformation, or maybe the Absolute Mystery comes to fuck our shit up, and out of sheer necessity at our apparent failure, we submerge back into the imaginal to once again birth a new version of us.
But the essential block of this journey for most of our thrice born brothers and sisters is that they are staying in the cocoon. They are staying in the undifferentiated “everything is equally true, everything is equally false, there is no just hierarchy, don’t tell me what to do and I won’t tell you what to do.”
A Dharma Artist is someone who decides to become something, which itself is an assertion of hierarchy.
It’s risky because you could be wrong. It’s risky because you could fail.
But it’s only risky if you forget that you can always return to the cocoon and try again.
What is a Dharma Artist?
This is where I step out of the vague poetics and into the practical specifics.
Here is my current map of what it means to be a Dharma Artist.
1) Embraces Pragmatic Mythic Play
I switch Dharma Artist with ‘Dharma Player’ sometimes because life often reminds me of video games. I love video games; they helped raise me. Video games are a deep and profound metaphor for consciousness. With a little excursion into the work of people like Donald Hoffman and John Vervaeke, one can quickly see how Alice’s rabbit hole goes even deeper than films like The Matrix or The Truman Show.
There is an essential reality but we do not see it. Our lives are deeply analogous to something like a video game (and to take this literally is to trip over the trap of Infinite Regress). The truth of the analogy is that as I transform, the game of life transforms.
I can play the game of life in a way that improves the game of life.
I acknowledge that no one, including myself, knows the absolute Right Way to play the game of life, but I believe there are ways more right than others, and my life is a continuous evolutionary journey of playing with my current best models, listening to the results, and iterating continuously.
I play the game of life to help reduce the suffering and improve the flourishing for all beings I encounter.
Mythic Play = capacity to hold any perspective
Pragmatism = we cannot know, but we can learn, and we learn through playing (enacting) different perspectives
2) The Daimon and The Acorn
I believe that everyone is born with a Daimon, and each of our Daimons is like the force in the acorn that produces the oak tree. I believe that in each of us there is a primordial knowledge of what our zone of genius is through which we most effectively and beautifully contribute to the game of life.
I believe that all neuroses, mental illnesses, and chronic diseases can be alchemized by living in our zone of genius.
To live in our zone of genius would demand we become mythic artists.
By experiencing the grace and vitality that emerges from living in our zone of genius, we will remember the forgotten knowledge that we do not become mentally ill because we are broken, we become ‘ill’ because the intelligence of our Daimon is speaking to us that we are out of alignment with our zone of genius.
Our zone of genius is always available, it will never abandon us as long as breath fills our lungs and blood moves through our heart.
If your Daimon is the music your soul plays, your Dharma is the way you dance.
3) Dedication to a Craft
A Dharma Artist is dedicated to a craft. They know that in order to manifest most fully their Daimon, they must humble themselves in the eternal school of honing a creative craft.
Dedication to a craft teaches discipline, humility, patience, listening, grace, and grit.
Through their dedication to their craft, they will experience the highest states of consciousness humans can experience in a body; states like flow, epiphany, insight, awe, and bliss.
Through their dedication to their craft, they will be connected to the collective. Art is a collective practice. Art is created to be shared. Through sharing their craft they will be exposed to all of their karma/dukka/triggers/traumas. This is good. Through their dedication to their craft, they will have the opportunity to witness and alchemize their pain, regret, shame, guilt, sadness, and fear by using these emotions as ore to put back through the creative process.
Through their dedication to a craft they will also be forced to learn practicality, strategy, and how to navigate the social structures of their time. They will understand that as a part of their dharma, it is their duty to learn how to sustain themselves in order to work on their craft.
That means they learn how to navigate finances, taxes, selling, and providing for themselves and their families. They understand that this too is part of their dedication to their craft.
Dedication to a craft aligns our souls with the zeitgeist.
Our craft has the potential to be our greatest teacher.
Dedication to their craft will also bring a dharma artist into direct relationship with the divine.
They are free to draw their own conclusions (or none at all), but they will know there is something alive, intelligence, and giggling on the other side of everything.
4) Regenerative Communication
A Dharma Artist recognizes the inner and outer collective, and their responsibility to regenerate both.
Our inner collective are our parts; our inner children, our internalized mother and father, the many facets of our persona, our dreams, fears, nightmares, and fantasies. A Dharma Artist recognizes that they are responsible for this inner family.
They practice the art of noticing these parts and how they speak to each other. Like a good leader, they step in when conflict arises and mediate resolutions. They don’t exile their grief, shame, guilt, fear, lust, rage or envy. They invite all parts to the table, and like a good leader, they call all parts to mature and develop.
Dharma Artists also recognize as above so below; that the outer collective is our culture, and that what we have not resolved in our inner collective we project on the outer collective. They know that if there is any group or type of people that they exile, ridicule, or find themselves obsessively envying or hating, that that is a sign that something within them is calling out for help.
Whenever they engage in conversation, they do so as they would with their inner collective. They listen like a compassionate loving leader. In all communication they see the other as a part of themselves, and they have learned the skills to navigate any kind of conversation from a state of being that allows for synthesis, reconciliation, and healing.
They take responsibility for their speech, and its effect, in both the inner and outer collective.
They’re effectively activated Mother-Father-Leaders. They have the unbounded compassion of a mother, the nurturing boundaries of the Father, and the inclination to ‘go first’ as a leader.
5) Cathedral Consciousness
A Dharma Artist does not fall into the trap of “the world is fucked, so I’m going to go get my plot of land, and live my life away from the chaos.”
They don’t fall into the trap of “everything is subjective, therefore nothing is more true than anything else.”
They live with the chosen burden that how they live their lives affects the following generations. They recognize that our culture is sick, and instead of leaving it, they do their best to hone their zone of genius towards helping the part of the collective that they can help because they are thinking of the next generation.
They are committed to bearing the responsibility of trying to contribute to a ‘Cathedral,’ a multi-generational project for the benefit of the generations to come.
This commitment humbles them, because the task is too great to be done alone, no matter how brilliant one’s zone of genius may burn. Commitment to the next seven generations demands collaboration with other Dharma Artists.
They recognize they must learn how to work with other Dharma Artists, how to raise children with them, grow communities with them, argue and debate with them, and ultimately to build with them.
6) Lightly child, Lightly
In the words of the luminescent Aldous Huxley:
“It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them…”
The foundation of a Dharma Artist is lightly child, lightly.
They remember this is a beautiful, fantastic, passionate, gorgeous game.
They’ve chosen to bear these burdens, to address these problems, and to feel these feelings.
Because they love it. They love life. They love consciousness. They love the human condition.
And so they don’t strive, they don’t strain, they play.
They are Dharma Artists, not Dharma strivers and strainers.
They know what it feels like to forget, and the feeling of forgetting becomes the reminder to remember.
And so, whenever they forget, because they will forget, they remember, because they always remember.
lightly child, lightly.
This is a beginning.
The goal here, that I don’t yet know how to do, but which will be the intention of the following articles, is to explore how to add flesh to this mythology of ‘the dharma artist.’
How do I live it, test it, and refine it?
Ben Franklin created a Virtues Chart to track his personal mythology.
Ram Dass went to India to shed his previous personal mythology.
Joan Didion wrote to reveal her personal mythology.
To step into the 4.5 perspective, to begin the transformation from imaginal cell into an actual form, you’re going to have to start doing.
For me, that looks like really dialing in the Dedication to a Craft part, because I think if I can get people to connect to the profundity of that path, most people would see it’s the way.
And frankly, I want to see a world with more art.
How to Make State a Trait?
Do not let the fact that I can write these words lead you to think for a moment that I am a Dharma Artist.
This is my personal aspiration.
A key distinction that Buddhism teaches, along with the STAGES Matrix and other developmental models is the difference between stages, states, and traits.
The map I shared in the previous article is an example of stages. A stage is a discrete level of development, like the difference between an infant not understanding that mom has an inner world of desires, and an 8 year old being able to share a toy she actually wants to play with because she understands it will make the other child happy.
These are distinct stages.
A state is a temporary experience of a stage, whereas a trait is when a new stage becomes stable.
A teenager who has learned to steal cars to survive may experience a brief state of empathy for a car owner if he sees a diaper in the back seat that reminds him of his niece, but will steal the next car that reminds him of the privileged people he hates.
A trait may develop for this teenager through a loving relationship with a therapist, who over months and years, helps the teenager transition to a perspective where he now understands his theft always creates suffering in others, and through this shift in perspective he never again can justify to himself that this action is okay.
Stages, states, and traits are crucially important in understanding developmental psychology. They help us understand the dynamism of our growth.
In developmental psychology, the terms trailing edge, center of gravity, and leading edge are used to help people understand this, and it applies to what I’ve written today.
A Dharma Artist is my leading edge. It is the current highest edge of how I am able to navigate life, but it is not my current center of gravity. Using these STAGES matrix, my center of gravity is somewhere around the 4.0 pluralist (everything is just human constructs). My trailing edge is the 3.5 achiever (I’ve got a vision for my life and I’m gunna fucking manifest it!).
My leading edge, what I’m calling a Dharma Artist, is my personalization of the 4.5 strategist stage with little hints of the 5.0 metaware tier (because of where I’m at, all the stages above that don’t really make sense to me if I am being honest).
Also, depending on our personal traumas, our triggers can temporarily regress us down to younger stages of development - and all of this is normal to the human condition.
That final important note is not to fall into the trap of equating growth with goodness.
Higher is not better. Each stage has positive aspects and shadow elements. Each stage solves a critical problem of a previous stage but eventually creates a new problem that begins to trigger the next transformation.
There is no end state of human development. There is no ‘winning the game’ of human development, but there is a map, a logic, a rhythm and a pattern to this magical phenomena we call human development.
And for those of us living at the beginning of the 21st century, our task is to follow the butterfly.
The task of our times is to eat the first two worlds that supported us, descend into the cocoon that is 4.0 consciousness, and then listen to what we ought to become, and become it.
We’ve got to develop the audacity to say: "There is a right way for me, and I’m dedicating my life to honing it through playing my dharma.”
“It is better to perform our own dharma imperfectly than another’s dharma perfectly.”