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“…the art of life is the most distinguished and the rarest of all the arts.”

C.G. Jung from Modern Man in Search of a Soul

The dilemma

The common sense belief that the intuitive awareness of our ideals such as, truth, love, knowledge, and justice motivates us in our everyday lives inspired the development of the Vision Circles Program. On the flip side we also know that we have biological and security needs crying out, “Take care of yourself first. It’s a dog eat dog world out there”. Given the rational tendency to satisfy our own self-interests in a rapidly advancing scientific culture and given our more-than-rational tendency to create ourselves and the world in the light of our ideals, how do we carry off this psychological high-wire act?

Alfred Adler, the creator of Individual Psychology, writes the following in his slim, cogent book, The Science of Living: “In each mind there is the conception of a goal or ideal to get beyond the present state, and to overcome the present deficiencies and difficulties by postulating a concrete aim for the future. By means of this concrete aim or goal the individual can think and feel himself superior to the difficulties of the present because he has in mind his success for the future. Without the sense of a goal individual activity would cease to have any meaning.”

According to Adler the process of personal development begins with the awareness of one’s deficiencies which in turn triggers the intuition of an ideal or, ‘what-could-be’ in the future. For example my ideal of knowledge is the intuitive response to my perception of my ignorance in a particular situation. When I see what is possible I am moved to marshal my mental resources to rationally construct a concrete goal that will motivate me to overcome my deficiency such as, pursuing a degree, reading a book, or some other specific goal. In the case of growing a friendship I am keenly aware of the ideals of trust and loyalty that move me to set goals for myself such as, always respond to the needs of my friend and assume good intentions motivating his behavior.

An embarrassing fall interrupts the high-wire act of living, when we lose our focus by separating the practical from the ideal. We cannot function successfully if we dismiss the ideal as being impractical, and, we cannot participate in the process of creating the ideal without rational, practical and tough-minded thinking. Fortunately, the human safety net of rational self-reflection and intuition saves us from a fatal fall. We can bounce back by constructing a creative attitude toward life shaped by our common sense intuition and our critical self-reflection.

What ideals are and what they are not

From an early age we have an intuitive, that is, a direct awareness of good. Children know that playing freely is good and that time out is bad; empathy and caring are good and harshness and neglect are bad. The rich and implied contents of “good” reveal themselves in the forms of ideals as we grow mentally, physically and socially. As we mature mentally through rational self-reflection, we develop clearer understandings of the ideals of love, justice and truth that motivate us in the creation of our lives.

The presence of ideals in our minds are as natural to us as air in our lungs.

Ideals are like stars guiding the sailor, but it’s up to the sailor to determine his/her destination and to master his/her navigational skills.

Ideals are not illusions, passing fancies, unachievable dreams, or wishful thinking.

From the foregoing description of ideals we can say that an ideal is not a set, absolute pattern to which everyone must conform in order to experience something as good.

  • There is no such thing as the ideal system of thought.
  • There is no such thing as the ideal marriage.
  • There is no such thing as the ideal person.
  • There is no such thing as the ideal institution.
  • There is no such thing as the ideal religion.

To think of ideals as cookie cutters of good human behavior completely distorts our common sense understanding of such ideals as, beauty and truth. For example, common sense recognizes literature as an embodiment of truth and beauty, and common sense also recognizes that there can be an infinite variety of literary instances of these ideals. So, likewise, humans through rational self-reflection and their creative actions make themselves unique incarnations of their intuitive ideals.

What the cognitive sciences tell us about our mental development

Studies done in the cognitive sciences reveal that children at an early age engage in primitive forms of abstract thinking. That type of thinking expands in grade school. As Kieran Egan points out in his book, The Educated Mind, the child’s mind in the romantic stage of development, roughly between the ages of seven and twelve, becomes fascinated with the extremes and limits of human experience in the concrete world. The images of what was good and bad in the mythical stage of early childhood now take on flesh and bones. The hero, that archetype described as the embodiment of the ideals of courage, love and justice by Carl Jung in Man and His Symbols and by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, captures the attention of the pre-adolescent mind. In adolescence and throughout life the human mind drawn by its intuited ideals, especially the ideal of truth, now seeks the answers to its profound questions through rational self-refection and scientific analysis. In the adult stage after we have solidified our financial standing and have established our family, we run the risk of personal stagnation if we fail to develop a deeper and wider vision of our ideals.

The Vision Circles Program is a method to help us strengthen our creative power. It is a guide to rationally and intuitively enrich our personal creed by responding to our particular human situation of standing in-between what-is and what-could-be: in-between the way I am and the way I could be; in-between the way this relationship is and the way it could be; in-between the way this school is and the way it could be; in-between the way this political system is and the way it could be; in-between the way my career is and the way it could be; and a range of other situations calling for a creative solution.

The lure of technological consciousness

The successes of the natural sciences of physics, chemistry and biology and their technological spin-offs have led many to believe that the scientific-technological way of understanding ourselves is the only road to happiness. The prevalent belief in our social institutions claims that the proper application of an evidence-based psychological technology will solve our problems. For example in the field of education researchers and administrators search for programs and methods that can be applied uniformly to all students with the expectation of positive outcomes. Also, parents, motivated by the ideal of success for their children, search for the best educational programs that will give their kids the edge. The assumption that the scientific method working so well in the natural sciences should work just as well to understand human behavior underlies their hope for success.

Unless we make another assumption, namely, that the human being is nothing more than a material, programmable, organic machine, we will have to admit to the limitations of trying to arrive at a full understanding of human behavior from only a scientific point of view. No matter how skilled the instructor and no matter how scientifically based the program, they are useless, if both the learner and the instructor do not motivate themselves.

Critical common sense, the basis of all science, raises questions about the assumption that we are nothing more than organic machines whose happiness consists in proper scientific functioning. Even so, let’s suppose that we are organic machines. How will we know, and who among the organic machines will know, what program is the true program? Will this new programmed organic machine experience greater freedom? Will the programmer decide what freedom means? We could go on raising more questions that arise from within our own consciousness. These questions are evidence that our minds are not empty buckets waiting for the perfect program.

Contrary to the popular images portraying the mind as a passive empty bucket, a blank blackboard and a formless lump of clay, the word, mind, points to the dynamic mental activities of intuition and reflection that connect us to important realities such as, freedom and truth. If we choose to pay attention to our critical common sense that ignites our powers of intuition and rational self-reflection, we will discover many startling realities residing in our interior life.

The enticing lure of our technological consciousness that presents us with automatic, facile “solutions” to human problems can short-circuit and deaden the mindful activity of rational self-consciousness. If our evidence-based methods and techniques, that are indeed necessary for our development, are not used artfully in the realization of our ideals, their blind application will rob us of our mysterious creative power.

Living artfully and scientifically

Let’s conclude, as we began, with another principle from Adler’s Individual Psychology. The following is taken from The Science of Living: “Individual Psychology tries to see individual lives as a whole and regards each single reaction, each movement and impulse as an articulated part of an individual attitude toward life. Such a science is of necessity oriented in a practical sense, for with the aid of knowledge we can correct and alter our attitudes.” Simply put, each person can be understood only as an integral, unique being that organizes himself/herself according to a personal attitude toward life. Later on in the same book he states, “As long as a person is in a favorable situation we cannot see his style of life clearly. In new situations, however, where he is confronted with difficulties, the style of life appears clearly and distinctly.” Again, simply put, when our backs are up against the wall, we get a sense of who we are.

In all the stages of life we are faced with challenges, unexpected painful events, critical turning points, and even the responsibilities of success. In those moments we intuitively know whether or not we are courageously pursuing the realization of our ideals or whether our attitude toward life has been shaped by giving into our irrational tendencies of confusion, dependency, rebellion and skepticism.

As Jerome Bruner pointed out in his book, The Culture of Education, there is no method that is teacher proof. In fact, there is nothing that is human proof. The attitude that we have taken toward life, either manipulative, controlling, passive, hostile, pessimistic, or optimistic, generous, productive, and creative, will determine how we see problems and how we use our scientific thinking to solve them. Behind every method, every technique, every machine, every political system, every religion, every bomb, every scalpel, every law, and in general everything that the human mind has produced, there is a human being ready to interpret them and utilize them according to how they see themselves and the world. The decline toward self-destruction or the creative ascent toward the realization of our ideals depends on the attitude that we take toward life. Critical common sense tells us that the creative attitude toward life emerges when we are engaged in the art of making ourselves and our world according to the vision of our ideals and the insights of science.