“Mr. Natural, what does it all mean?” Part 1 [78]

In Spirituality & Personal Growth by Dr. Keith Witt

If you grew up in the sixties and seventies, you probably are familiar with Zap Comics, the counterculture’s irreverent, risqué, and hip extension of Mad Magazine (junior and senior high school boomers were crazy for Mad Magazine in the sixties). Robert Crumb became the patron saint of the Zap Comic genre, and two of his signature characters were Flakey Foont, a hapless victim of modern society, and Mr. Natural, a bearded egocentric guru in a white robe, who occasionally was the real thing—an authentically enlightened being. One classic exchange is Flakey Foont pursuing Mr. Natural across a field, begging him, “Mr. Natural! Mr. Natural! What does it all mean?” Mr. Natural, in a hurry to somewhere, tosses back over his shoulder, “It don’t mean shit!” Really? I’ve always loved this conversation, and have reinterpreted it endlessly to myself over the years. My current take is that Flakey’s obvious desire for one insight to resolve his multiple dilemmas is crazy, and Mr. Natural is whacking him for his ridiculous assumption one answer can do the trick, but also establishing his credibility in really knowing what it all means–after all, he’s answering confidently, and he is the one and only Mr. Natural! We always yearn for organizing principles and confident teachers, and, after reading Andrew Cohen’s brilliant Evolutionary Enlightenment, I find myself considering, once again, “What does it all mean?” Evolutionary Enlightenment will move you I recommend you check out Evolutionary Enlightenment. Cohen teaches how our authentic self (the “I” that’s closest to pure soul) committed to the evolutionary impulse is about as good as it gets. His explanations of the nondual combinations of radical emptiness (the experiential goal of most meditative traditions) and our fierce human desires to relate and create are simple, accessible, and satisfying. Andrew maintains we have two basic states, “authentic self,” our soul-sourced core of pure consciousness which serves the evolutionary impulse, and “ego,” the culturally conditioned sum of our habits. At the end the book, Andrew mentions, “creative friction” where the dialectic of differing opinions drives evolution onward, and I was feeling some creative friction as I read his last pages (it’s always good to read last chapters—writers save some of their best stuff for a final blast). I wanted to add a couple of points to his approach. Specifically:
  • We have many selves in addition to pure “authentic self,” and “ego.” We contain everyone we’ve been, not to mention identities programmed into us by the rich cultures we live in and naturally form when two or more are gathered together (me as child, parent, friend, lover, professional, boss, follower…you get the idea).
  • Even though enlightened states of expanded consciousness and communion plus single-minded devotion to the evolutionary impulse are arguably likely to be more mature, caring and transcendent than other states, everyone regularly enters immature states, egocentric states, and defensive states (among many others). All these states yearn to be acknowledged and effectively integrated–you can’t just dismiss them entirely as “ego.” Each has its own legitimacy, power, and wisdom.
Development includes and transcends. As I’ve mentioned before (blogs #30, #17, #15, and #9), we grow in different capacities (like thinking, relating, writing, or dancing—or simply our physical development) through different levels, and we don’t skip levels. Each progressive level includes learning and transformation from previous levels, and then transcends into a new self moving ultimately towards more caring, world-centric, and unitive—but we have to absorb and integrate to progress. No matter how high an IQ a four-year-old has, she can’t handle relativistic concepts (something like lying can be wrong most of the time, but right occasionally) which a normal fifteen-year-old can understand. A four-year-old has to at least mature through thinking in primitive black and white, either/or logic stages first (it’s wrong to lie) to get to relativistic, shades-of-grey thinking (sometimes lying can be right, depending on the circumstances). In other words, if we don’t develop morally enough to sign on that it’s mostly good to follow social rules, it’s irrelevant whether we interpret them relativistically or not. Similarly, we grow through different levels of maturity in how we relate with lovers, friends, and family members (which change in all kinds of ways when we’re in defensive states, Blog #14). No matter how advanced we become on different lines of development, we still shift up and down on levels of competence in how we love, do our jobs, parent, make decisions, surf, or play tennis. At each level we can have healthier or less healthy expressions—we can be in states of healthy response to the present moment, or in defensive states. We hover at different attitudes on many developmental lines, such as how we relate, think, make moral decisions, or make love. Developmental lines and levels are central features of Integral Psychology, developed by my friend Ken Wilber, and can guide us towards health and love as we commit to personal evolution. Briefly:
  • A developmental line is any aspect or ability (like physical development, thinking, making moral decisions, learning a skill, relating to others, or caring for ourselves) that involves stages of development where development is in one direction and we don’t skip stages.
  • The way to progress on each line is to devote yourself to the healthy expressions available to you at whatever level you currently occupy—what Integral calls your “center of gravity” on that line.
  • For instance, on the psychosexual line of development, if I’m single, I want to get better at dating in a healthy way. If I fall in love, I want to grow in being a supportive, reliable lover. If we have a child, I want to become a progressively better parent and cocreate a thriving family.
Wouldn’t it be nice… I believe if even ten percent of our country fully accepted that each of us hovers at different levels—altitudes—on different developmental lines, and that we grow to further levels by embracing healthy beliefs and behaviors of our current levels and turning away from the unhealthy ones, the world as we know it would transform. Suddenly, fewer would assume the “right” answer to anything! People would just go with the best current answer. No meditator/teacher/seeker would ever believe he or she has arrived at enlightenment or any ultimate truth—they’d assume enlightened states exist for all of us, and develop with practice. Such practitioners would tend to be interested in the best perspectives from current levels of development and know that these perspectives change in both mysterious and predictable ways with growth. Children would be raised by parents who had achieved some developmental milestones, but knew they had other milestones ahead—doing their best to be healthy by current standards, yet assuming progress and change over time. These parents would just accept that you learn to better parent throughout life–that you can be a superior parent now, and never arrive at ultimate parenting truth. Maybe doing our best and assuming progress over time is as good as it gets–and, at least partially, answers the question, “What does it all mean?” Maybe that’s why Mr. Natural was so dismissive of Flakey Foont’s desire for a final answer right now, because the answer is how we live each moment progressively through complex, interconnected lives, and we can never fully arrive at what it all means. We’ll explore this further next week in, “Mr. Natural, what does it all mean?” Part 2.