Many years ago, when I was searching for the answer to life, I thought I’d find it by going to the end of the world. That was the instruction I found in all the stories. You climbed the mountain, found the guy with the long beard, and he’d give you the secret. You’d come down a changed man, everything clear, all the doubts gone. You’d know what to do and how to do it.

So I got on a plane and I flew to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I figured if I was going to go to the end of the Earth, it should be warm and beautiful. After what felt like days on a plane I landed in Tahiti. The thick warm air and the smell of gardenias from the lei that was put around my neck made me nauseous in a swoonish kind of way.

But Tahiti wasn’t going far enough, I knew, if I wanted to meet the guru. I’d read in the Lonely Planet Guide about one of the remotest of the Society Islands. It was referred to as “picturesque,” and promised “quiet and solitude” which I knew meant it had little to recommend it. Just what I was looking for. The island was called Huahine. Even travelling to that postage stamp in space still wasn’t as far as I could go. Apparently, there was a guest house in a small village on the back-end of the island. That was my goal.

I got on a cockroach-infested ship that travelled to the out islands. After a few uncomfortable nights on the boat we got to the island. At the dock I found a bus headed for the village mentioned in my guide book. I was in luck!

The bus sat at the dock most of the day. A few local workers, naturally muscular golden-brown fellows with long, shiny black hair covered in baseball caps and big, toothy smiles sat on the bus, goofing around with each other, drinking beer. No one seemed to be in any kind of hurry and no one could provide information about the bus’s departure. The entire concept of “information” suddenly felt so western and embarrassingly out of place. Hey, who promised that it would be easy to get to the end of the world?

Before the sun started its precipitous plop into the water, the bus finally rumbled off. I asked about the village, and the driver told me it was the last stop. Perfect. After a few hours of adrenaline-pumping hair-pin turns, I remained the only passenger when the bus bumped to a halt. The driver signaled that we were at the end of the road.  Literally.

I got off the bus. Just me and my backpack. The bus turned around and this time didn’t wait. In moments, my only escape was a dusty dot on the horizon. I found myself in a ratty little village, with dilapidated tin huts, the streets riddled with crab holes. It sure was quiet and I sure felt the solitude. I looked around in vain for any sign that signaled a place for a poor pilgrim like myself to stay.

Eventually, a young woman, barefoot, wearing a wrap-around skirt called a pareu and tee-shirt, sauntered up to me with her two small children. She spoke English and asked what I was doing here. I said that I was looking for the guest house. She looked at me with a scolding look as if I had made a terrible mistake.

“No guesthouse here,” she said, shaking her head.

“When does the next bus arrive,” I asked.

“Four days,” she said.

She looked at me, I looked at her. “Is there any place around here I could stay? I’m willing to pay.” In a moment of anxiety, I stuck my hand in my pocket and grabbed my wad of Polynesian Francs just to make sure I did have the money.

With a condescending shrug, she said I could stay in the empty house next to hers. I expressed my gratitude.

The house had a bed and a chair. The toilet housed a dead fish. But it was a place to stay, and there was no doubt about it: I had gotten to the end. Or so I thought.

The woman invited me to share meals with her family. All meals turned out to be the same. Poi. It was perhaps the most putrescent food I have ever eaten. It was a glutinous, snot-like concoction, that should have been coming out of my body instead of going in. Meals were hard, smiling as I forced the spoon into my mouth, making rudimentary conversation with this woman, her husband, and kids.

I suffered my days alone pacing the short beach. I fell into a bone-crushing despair. I had done what I was supposed to do. Now that all of the distractions of modern life had been scrubbed clean, and I entered the emptiness, what I found there really depressed me. What I found was — nothing.

Sunday came, and the family said they were going to Church. I could come, or I could take a row boat out to the motu. They told me that Grandpa lived out there. He liked having visitors on Sunday. Here it was! The wise old man at the end of the world! It hadn’t all been for nothing! He was here! I quickly chose the boat to the motu.

What is a motu, you might ask. Have you seen those cartoons of the guy on the desert island, a circle of sand with a palm tree in the middle? That’s a motu. You couldn’t possibly get more remote than this and still be on the planet Earth. I got it now: the problem had been that I hadn’t gone far enough.

I got into the boat and glided across the lagoon to the speck of sand in the infinite sea. I got out and saw the one hut on the island. I walked to the door. Inside, there was a wizened brown man with white hair and milky-cataract eyes. He had a big smile, and greeted me as if he knew I was coming. He sat in a metal chair. Another chair sat empty, next to him. He patted the seat, signaling me to sit down. He faced a table. On the table was a small television with a built in VCR player. The screen was filled with gray noise.

I sat down and he nodded with anticipation. He smiled and pantomimed, pointing to the TV. I nodded, too, and smiled. He reached over and hit the play button. The video snapped to life. What I saw on the screen were three hula dancers: attractive, smiling Polynesian women with long black hair, garlands of flowers, coconut shell bikini tops, and grass skirts. They moved in unison, waving their arms, with undulating hips.

I looked at the wise old man and he looked at me with a big smile and nodded. Then he nudged me with his elbow, pointed at the screen, and said, “Vahine! Vahine!”

Which loosely translated, means, “check out the babes.”

I could have hailed a cab on Seventh Avenue and for $7.00 gotten this message. But no, I had to spend thousands of dollars, and travel to the butt-end of the universe to receive this wisdom.

For some time I chalked it up as a cosmic joke. But as the years passed, I realized that I got what I was looking for. The old man at the end of the world did give me the secret to life.

If you haven’t gotten it already, here it is. It’s not only about searching and finding, it’s about recognizing it when it is right in front of your shnozzola. I had to go to the end of the world to figure out the secret is available wherever you look. It’s all about how you look. It’s about being passionate about what is, embracing desire, finding the deep beauty, inviting in the stranger and giving away your heart to them. It is about a willingness to share every little thing you want to hold onto. It is about the daily practice of finding harmony and connection, having a giggle together, crossing the endless abyss to recognize each other. It’s about singing, dancing, and kissing the girl. It’s about knowing that the only thing worth traveling around the world for is true love.

Or in Polynesian, vahine.

Visit Shrinky at http://shrinky.net.

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My psychotherapy client, David, is 32 years old. If anything, David is neat. His blond hair is closely cropped. He wears a Banana Republic iron-free shirt, pressed pants, and shiny black shoes. This is the uniform of a mid-level guy at a major law firm.

His eyes are wide and confused. “I just don’t get it,” he tells me, “I think I’m doing everything right but my wife, Cindy, tells me she just isn’t getting her needs met.”

I ask him why he hasn’t been able to attend his psychotherapy appointments with me for the last three weeks. He tells me he couldn’t get out of work. Then he stops and says, “I know. I keep saying that time just keeps going on and things are not resolving. I was saying the same thing a year ago.”

I find out that David and Cindy barely see each other from Monday to Friday. They both work 70 hour weeks. Cindy is in finance. She is stressed and anxious. She has trouble sleeping.

“By the time the weekend comes, we’re both exhausted,” he says, “and we don’t want to talk about our issues. Then before we know it we’re back at work again, and another week has passed.”

He fears they are headed for divorce.

After David leaves I see Lucy. Lucy was just rejected by a 47-year-old guy who bounces from relationship to relationship because he can’t seem to find a woman who is “right” for him. Broken hearted, Lucy, at 39, is convinced she will be alone and childless for the remainder of her life.

Then I see Dierdre who complains about how much time Richard spends gaming. Next comes Alex who is upset that Jane never wants to have sex. Paul feels like there must be something wrong with him, because none of his friends answer his emails. Charles tells me that he can’t stop binge drinking and having random hook ups every weekend. He tells me he does this because that’s what everyone in his peer group is doing and he doesn’t want to be alone. Stephanie can’t get a date on Match.com.

The stories go on and on. Certainly, as a therapist working in the city, the sample of people that I encounter is a skewed one. But I wonder, is there a pattern here? Through my lens, it appears that though 500 million people are now members of Facebook, people aren’t connecting.

When researchers talk about relationship problems in the post-industrial world, they usually refer to marriage statistics. And these numbers are painful. More than 50% of first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. The rate of marriage around the world has fallen precipitously and the number of out-of-wedlock births has skyrocketed.

But these well-known facts only tell part of the story. We have many different kinds of relationships beyond our marital ones. In fact, throughout our whole lives we are inextricably intertwined with others. None of us is, as Paul Simon said, a rock, or an island.

Our life of relationship may be the most important dimension of our lives. Yet, if what I am seeing in my practice is true, and the statistics about marriage and family are any indication, we are facing a connection crisis. Does my sample indicate a larger trend of people feeling increasingly isolated, alienated, lonely, and empty? Statistics bear out this trend. In 1950, less than one in ten people lived alone. Today, fully 25% do.

Where is this connection crisis coming from? None of us knows for sure. But we do know that we are in a period of massive technological and cultural transformation. As a result, many of our institutions are fracturing and this is leading to a great deal of personal dislocation. Though these changes can be painful, the results have both positive and negative aspects. Certainly, much about the old models of relationship needed improvement.

Anybody who is a fan of the hit TV show, “Mad Men” can attest that in many ways things are better for both women and men since the time of that show in the early 1960’s. At that time, men drank and smoked their way to heart attacks and cancer, and women were relegated to roles like secretary and housewife. The notion of an equal, healthy partnership between the sexes had not entered the common consciousness.

The traumatic life stories of all too many of my clients tells us that physical and emotional abuse and neglect were all too common in the child rearing practices of the past. Unfortunately, these practices still continue, but at least we are beginning to expose this behavior as wholly destructive and many, many people are changing their child-rearing approaches to a more positive one.

The transformation in relationships that is occurring as a result of technology is unprecedented and no one knows what the results of these changes will be. On one hand, the new technologies can be a lot of fun. The ability of Facebook to reconnect people who have been out of touch for decades is extraordinary. At the same time, workers are losing downtime to be with their families because of the demands that they remain tethered to their smart phones 24/7.

For all the good that the changes over the last decades has brought about, the connection crisis tells us that they have also created enormous problems that will be with us for many years to come. For example, at least 1 out of every 5 children are living with one parent, which ample research indicates can have lifelong negative effects. Even if children are living with two parents, the economy and parent’s lifestyle choices are keeping many parents of both genders separated from their children more and more.

Out of an awareness of these down-sides and the fear of change itself, many people are reacting to these transformations with a wish to return to the old days and ways. But returning to the past is impossible. Though we know we cannot return to a former time, the connection crisis tells us that what we have now is not the complete answer. We have been throwing over the past without having found something better to replace it with.

Rather than succumbing to hopelessness about the negative consequences to relationships and connection that we are experiencing today, we must look upon this time as one that offers tremendous opportunity. We must envision this as a time when we can advance the cause of human progress toward living in a more loving world.

How are we going to solve our connection crisis?  By improving the way we relate to others, whether it is with close family members or people from the most far-flung lands.

In fact, creating new forms for relationships is the most important task of our time. In order to do this, we need to foster a relationship fitness movement. We need to redefine the meaning and nature of relationship itself and find ways to teach humanity how to have better, deeper, more fulfilling, relationships.

This relationship fitness movement must begin with a positive vision of the world of relationships as we would like to see it and to propose methods for achieving this new vision.

Our times demand that we recreate long standing institutions like the family, marriage, religion, schoo,l and the work place. It is up to us to do what we can to improve upon these institutions, rather than to either throw them over completely or to suffer the effects of living with them in an outmoded form.

Not only will this relationship fitness movement improve our personal lives, but it is the only way that we will be able to truly live in a safe and secure world. We are not going to bring about this safer world through military might, which only serves to divide us more. When we truly learn how to listen to one another, and we ourselves feel heard, we become compassionate. And true safety will emerge in the world when we most fully develop our compassion towards one another.

In order to create this vision, here are some of the questions we need to answer.

What is the present condition of our relationships? How are we being affected by the ways we are relating now? What is the impact of our culture, institutions and the new media on our relationships?

What does it mean to have a good relationship? What skills are necessary to have good relationships? How can these skills be taught? How can we teach these skills to the greatest number of people? How can we recruit our schools, religious institutions, the work place and social media to foster better relationships?

The changes that need to be made do not mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The new needs to be informed by the wisdom from the past. More than ever, we need what the Akan people of Africa call a sankofa, a reconnection to ancient truths to ground us in a more promising future. What can we learn from our great cultural heritage to help us become something new?

What all of my clients need – what every one of us needs — is basic to human nature and has been primary for people since the beginning of time. Through changes upon changes certain eternal truths remain. In the end, both for our personal fulfillment and the very survival of the planet, we need to figure out how to move humanity ever closer to the realization of universal love.

If we are to survive and thrive in this new world, we need greater and greater numbers of people to learn how to authentically connect in deeper and more sustaining ways. This idea of a relationship fitness movement hopes to contribute to this end. We can only transform our world of relationships if we start doing it here, ourselves. I am very interested in your ideas of how we can bring these kinds of ideas into reality. Please share your thoughts.

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Victor Frankl, a profound human being and one of the great existential psychotherapists of the 20th century, was a concentration-camp survivor. An author of dozens of books, his most renowned is Man’s Search for Meaning. He captures the sum of my philosophy and approach to psychotherapy and life in this short video. It is beautiful and worth watching.

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“Every man has in him that which is exalted,”  Mencius tells us, and that is the heart, the best within the person. The heart is a symbol of our greatest aspirations. As Tang Chun-I, (1880-1978) a contemporary interpreter of Mencius stated, this symbol of heart inspires us to reach “supreme humanity.”  Mencius stated that our moral nature has four essential aspects. The first is ‘the heart of compassion’. This is proved by our natural abhorrence of the suffering of others. Second is ‘the heart of shame,’ which is proved by our disgust at atrocity. ‘The heart of courtesy and modesty’ emerges from our reverence. Finally, the ‘heart of right and wrong,’ emerges from the heart being the sense organ of goodness.  Each of these four aspects has its virtue, or optimal realization of its capacity.

The cultivation of the heart of compassion leads to the realization of benevolence or jen. This notion of jen represents the achievement of our ultimate humanness, or being humane.

The cultivation of the heart of shame, leads to rightness or dutifulness known in Chinese as yi. Our healthy shame leads us to take the right action even when no one is looking.

The heart of courtesy and modesty, when cultivated leads us to have the virtue of decorum or li. This means following the right form of behavior and an observance of rites.

Finally, the heart of right and wrong leads to wisdom or chih.

Though Confucius concerned himself deeply with what was called, li, or external, ritualized form, the felt experience was what was essential for aligning with the ethical value. He tells us that symbolic actions without embodied emotional qualities are meaningless. In this sense, for the outside to have meaning, it had to derive from the inward, the heart. Confucius said, “In the ceremonies of mourning, it is better that there be deep sorrow than a minute attention to observances.”  Authentic feeling is our goal, not fulfilling some outer ritual.

In the same way, the virtue, the integral quality of the person, is what is of significance, not some external marker like station, wealth or success. “The Master said, ‘High station filled without indulgent generosity; ceremonies performed without reverence . . . wherewith should I contemplate such ways?’”

For each of these virtues to be authentic, they must emerge, as Augustine also asserted, from the heart. To simply follow the form of jen, yi, li or chih without an intrinsic, natural motivation for doing so, is merely to have the conduct, not the virtue. Authentically embodying these virtues means that we are in harmony with the principles of nature. Living by the dictates and form rather than the intrinsic principle inevitably leads to inner, and outer, conflict.

Without proper cultivation, these incipient capacities can be easily lost. This is tantamount to the loss of our original heart. Since for Mencius these potentials are the defining characteristics of human beings, to not develop them to the utmost is to lose the heart, where heart means essence. To be distanced from our essential nature is to go against the principles of universal nature which inevitably leads to an unfulfilled, unhappy and unsuccessful life.

The extent to which we live out of harmony with universal law or the heavenly mandate is revealed through symptoms both individually and collectively. The laws and principles of nature are not explicated magically, where the result proves the cause, like in the early Old Testament view, promoted by the likes of Pat Robertson even today, who claimed that AIDS and the hurricane and Katrina were examples of God’s retribution against sinners. In this view, any disastrous event proves in some way to be God’s punishment for some unrelated wicked deed. Instead, in the Mencian view, there are natural consequences to living out of harmony with universal law. If we can see the tragic lawfulness behind occurrences, we come to understand principle or the order of the cosmos. Natural law is proven by our inability to escape the consequences of living out of harmony with nature.

Despite the fact that we can lose touch with these aspects of ourselves does not mean that they are destroyed or that they are not natural.   They can be found again. They can be cultivated, which is defined as the act of searching for the heart.  Mencius focused on our own efforts as the path to finding or retaining the heart. To find the heart means accessing the right way to live according to universal principle and human nature, as exemplified by an ideal inspired by a timeless, ancient form. This defined the moral. By pursuing the good, we could find the heart. The way to find the heart was to seek it. As Confucius put it, “Is benevolence really far away? No sooner do I desire it than it is here.”

Keeping the original heart is a defining characteristic of the Confucian ideal of the profound person. Mencius says, “A gentleman differs from other men in that he retains his heart.”

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Contemporary religious author, Karen Armstrong, writer of the recent best-selling book for Knopf Publishing, “A Case for God,” and 2009 TEDPrize winner, tells us that authentic spirituality is an embrace of the unknowable. I take this a step further, and say that living an authentic life is to strive to live up to our highest ethical potentials despite the knowledge that we will fail in this quest. I found the words to express this sentiment while watching an absolutely wonderful film, the Alexander Korda 1940 production of “The Thief of Baghdad.” You will recognize its unique color quality if you are familiar with the work of English directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger whose classic films include “The Red Shoes,” and “Black Narcissus.” Powell is one of the directors of “The Thief.” This is a great movie to watch with the kids. Though the effects are primitive, the emotional impact makes “Avatar” seem cheap. I found the words to express the sentiment I was looking for in this great scene. To truly live is to embrace of the beauty of the impossible.

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In a medieval town in Umbria, a maker of spectacular Italian clothes is attempting to run his company from humanistic values derived from the wisdom of the ages. I highly recommend a visit to Brunello Cuccinelli’s website. You can also read his profile in The New Yorker by Rebecca Mead.

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For the great Chinese phil0sopher Mencius, disciple of Confucius, the unique aspect of the human being was his heart. What did Mencius mean by heart?

As human thought had its greatest advance in the few hundred years following the 5th century BCE, this time, too, saw the revelation of the meaning of hsin in Chinese philosophy, most accurately translated as heart/mind. Previous to this time, including in the writings of Confucius himself, though the heart is named, its meanings were not explored in depth.

As our inspiring quote has it, “The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.” When Mencius writes about the heart, and tells us about a process of self-development based on a rediscovery of original nature, he is describing his own life process. As Mencius relates his experience of actualization in his discussion of heart, he serves as an inspiration for other questers in search of their own essential being. As we understand from our exploration of hermeneutics, the purpose of reading the Mencius in depth is not some intellectual exercise of understanding, but a central method of self-cultivation. The goal of reading Mencius is not to understand the heart, but to find it. This heroic journey of self-realization which is made possible by travelling with Mencius into the symbol of the heart is what makes his writings on the subject so valuable.

Essence, Entelechy and Heart

In their search for the good of all, the Confucians looked for the ‘single thread,’ or universal law. They found these principles through an examination of nature, as exemplified in agriculture.  “The principle in the course and operation of nature . . . obeys only its immutable law . . .”

Agriculture operates from the understanding that when we cultivate plants according to the laws of the processes of nature, we can dramatically increase and control our yield. If our plant withers, it must mean we are not honoring nature’s law. This power of understanding also poses a danger, because as much as we can improve on nature, if our understanding is one-sided we can disturb nature’s ecological balance. We can create a short-term gain and create a long-term problem. The workings of nature are more subtle than simply increasing an immediate yield. We see how even today we continue to struggle with accomplishing sustainable fecundity.

Through a process of inference, the Confucians believed that in the same way that nature has hidden laws that can be discovered, humans, too, have these subtle, profound principles. This is human nature, which is embedded in nature as a whole. Through an observation of living things in nature, the Confucians recognized that each living thing grows and develops. It has an inherent pattern that exists originally in potential. When it is optimally cultivated, it realizes this potential. This was the Chinese discovery of what Aristotle would call a telos, a purpose, or that to which a thing aims.

The Chinese view is that the principles of development and realization found through agriculture are a microcosm of universal patterns.  If we can understand these universal principles, and live in harmony with them, then we, too, will grow maximally, and fulfill our potentials.

As the universe, through the example of life, is about growth and change, so too, the universe must have its telos, purpose, or developmental realization. Archeologist/theologian Teillard de Chardin recognized that there are two basic movements in the universe. One is toward a loss of differentiation. Much of the universe is moving toward entropia, a breakdown of complex, systemic organization into ‘noise.’ Rather than the universe developing, this indicates that the universe is falling apart. However, a smaller, but far more important segment of the universe continues to move toward greater differentiation and complexification. As this segment has complexified it has become alive and has increased in consciousness and freedom. It is this universal complexification axis that the Confucians intuited through coming to observe relationships and processes of growth and development. By observing this process, we can infer where the universe is heading. This motion is what the Chinese would call the Tao, or Way.
This corresponds to Aristotle’s entelechy. Human nature is a process of becoming. That is, we all have the potential to continuously grow. Individually, this process leads toward each of us becoming an absolutely unique being. When we realize ourselves in this way, we are living in harmony with our own nature, and so in harmony with universal nature. This is what nature wants from us.

Our life is meant to be an expression, a manifestation, of what one essentially is, both in its universal aspect of a fulfillment of our human nature, and in its most individual, unique and particular aspects. Both together make up our entelechy, the purpose for which we exist, and the realization of our inherent potentials that exist ab origine, nascently, in our beginning.

Observing the workings of nature, Mencius understood the Aristotelian cause of form. One cause of a thing’s individual existence is its organization. The greater the complexity of a thing, that is, the greater the harmony of its parts, the greater the thing’s health, capacity for development, and power. The laws of nature can be perceived in this growth through a harmony of parts, which is one way of defining a complex structure. This would lead to the conclusion that in order to achieve fulfillment, we need to not only have internal order, but to be in harmonic relation to a greater whole. We need to find our proper place in the cosmos. This is good both for the individual and the cosmos in its totality. As sentient beings, we get to participate in the process of optimizing our use of natural law through its understanding and so advance the natural movement of nature’s development. Our job then, is to comprehend the laws of nature and live according to these principles. In this way, we find individual fulfillment and the fulfillment of the greater universal organism.

That which is taken to its summit point of development, beginning with the simple and moving to the complex, leads to infinite realization. As Mencius said,

“Or consider the high mountains: they consist of nothing more than a multiplicity of single handfuls of stones. But when these are taken to their fullest extent of breadth or vastness, then trees and grasses grow upon them in untold profusion, all manner of birds and beasts dwell within them and hidden treasures emerge from their midst.”

As every realm is ecologically intertwined, our inherent potentials are not only designed for the good and growth of the individual, but for culture, group, society, species, world, and universe. We are inextricably interwoven in a web of relationships and relatedness. These, too, make up organism, and system. These developmental and relational laws are the Heavenly Mandate.

That which we are meant to be, our purpose or telos, is one way of defining our essential nature. Mencius asserted that what makes a person’s essence is that which makes them unique. He called this unique feature of humanity, that is, our entelechal purpose, the heart. For Mencius, the home of human nature within the individual is the heart.

We can know the heavenly mandate—universal nature—if we understand human nature. Therefore, the home of the heavenly mandate within the person is the heart. As such, Mencius’s humanism is a transcendental one. As he said, “Following our inner knowledge, we shall know our heart, thereby know our nature, and thus come to know our heaven.”

If we find our hearts we can know these universal laws of nature, and by living in accord with them, we can achieve our life’s purpose.  Our task in life, the Confucians believed, is to find what they called the Central Harmony. When we make manifest the Heavenly Mandate by living according to the principles of nature, we achieve the Central Harmony. By finding our hearts and living according to the Tao we achieve the Central Harmony. The heart is the part of us that “possesses the nature to grow” toward the realization of our true humanity.

This contribution of Mencius, of defining the heart as the place of our realization, is the core of the Chinese humanistic philosophy.   The source of fulfillment is within. Mencius tells us that a phenomenological process of self-exploration, a journey to this inner source, will lead us to rediscover the heart, and to be in harmony with essential human nature.

Furthermore, through coming to comprehend microcosmic and macrocosmic nature, this dynamic, inspiring symbol leads us to the ultimate realization of the self, humanity and the universe in its totality.

If this subject of entelechy is of interest to you, you might want to explore Dr. Art Rosengarten’s blog.

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