The #1 Reason Why Jordan Peterson Is Misunderstood And What He’s Really Up To: As explained by one of his former Harvard students
His combative media antics notwithstanding, Jordan Peterson is a spiritual teacher. There. I said it.
And I’m reminded of when, years ago, I spoke to someone who’d been a student of Joseph Campbell’s at Sarah Lawrence College. He told me how the students there used to refer to Campbell as “Saint Joe.”
Those of us who’ve been lucky enough to have Jordan Peterson as our college professor echo the same sentiment. He was easily the most influential instructor I had. His teaching expanded my consciousness and profoundly shaped the direction of my life.
Now, let’s get down to brass tacks.
When Peterson talks about cleaning up your room as the starting point of any fixing up of reality you want to do and don’t go trying to fix complex social systems until you can fix up your own room, he really means it in the sense of clean up your own energy field and stop spewing toxic energy out into the collective field.
Because he does believe in the collective field of Being. And he does believe that one person’s actions have a ripple effect across the quantum field of collective human consciousness.
And so, when he says, in so many words, clean up your own energy field and don’t try to do anything else until you can do that, he means that if your own energy field is chaotic, all you’re going to do is spread chaos throughout our collective human field.
It doesn’t matter how good you say your intentions are, if your own energy field is disordered and imbalanced, you’re only going to bring disorder and imbalance with you wherever you go. So, if you try to go about correcting complex social systems, all you’re going to do is wreak havoc. You can’t do otherwise.
Recall this Bible verse… Bueller, Bueller…: “How can you say to your brother, ‘let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a log in your own eye. You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7: 4,5).”
It’s the flip-side of Gandhi’s famous dictum: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
And it’s essentially the same thing that Peterson is teaching: sort yourself out first bucko! And for gawd’s sakes, wash your hands before you start groping around in the eyeballs of others.
But thus, Peterson is speaking metaphysically, like other spiritual teachers before him, about our metaphysical reality and the ripple effects of energy that vibrate across our collective field of Being.
Stop spewing toxic energy; stop pointing fingers at ‘what’s wrong;’ stop casting blame and you’ll stop contributing energetically to the problem of disharmony and disorder. Here’s what you can do: start emitting a personal vibration that’s well-ordered, coherent, harmonious, and peaceful. And that’s how you’ll really effect a positive ripple of change across our collective field.
The problem is Peterson doesn’t actually say this. Not in these words. Not out loud anyway.
Instead, when pushed, he doubles-down on his castigation of immature no-nothings who shouldn’t be trying to “smash the patriarchy.” And he gets downright ornery in the delivery of his sermon. Which, of course, doesn’t help the medicine go down.
What’s happening, however, is that Peterson is deliberately steering clear of anything that sounds “woo woo” or “new agey.” He deliberately tries to sound academic and deliberately tries to martial empirical evidence to buttress his teaching. So, he couches his metaphysic under the various cloaks of psychology, sociology, philosophy, biology, physics, etc. without ever fully taking possession of his metaphysical sensibilities or, of himself, as a metaphysical teacher.
And what happens is that scholars in each of these various disciplines are up in arms crying foul about how Peterson re-positions and re-purposes their science in service of his metaphysic.
But really, what Peterson is doing is culling parables from these various disciplines in service of his spiritual teaching. It’s not unlike when someone by the name of Jesus talked to his rural contemporaries using metaphors they’d understand, about sheep and goats.
Peterson is speaking to his academic contemporaries, utilizing their own research and scholarship, to extract a metaphysical narrative about the nature of Being, it’s natural ebbs and flows in interdependently-arising hierarchical ecosystems, and about heroic human redemption of these same hierarchical ecosystems in the face of an impossibly-complex and infinitely-unknowable Being.
It’s just that, well, Peterson himself doesn’t fully realize that this is “what he’s up to.” And he certainly doesn’t use the words “interdependently-arising” and “ecosystems” to describe the hierarchies that he’s at pains to explain are just “the way reality is constructed.”
But that is what he means when he says that you can’t just tinker with a hierarchy — pulling out the pieces you don’t like — without potentially destroying the entire ecosystem. Nor can you do away with a hierarchy without erecting another hierarchy in its place. Because we exist inside complex hierarchical webs that are the very ecosystems of our existence. That is the nature of Being.
For example, think of the food chain. The food chain, of which we stand at the top, is a complex hierarchical ecosystem. And we know that if you remove even one little plankton from the food chain, it has a profound and possibly disastrous ripple effect across the whole hierarchical ecosystem.
This is what he’s trying to say when he says you can’t just remove one piece — that you don’t like — of our cultural hierarchy, without possibly setting off a cascading domino effect of catastrophic consequences across our whole cultural ecosystem.
In short, he gives examples from biological hierarchies to tell a metaphysical story about our collective human existence. He utilizes the lobster as a parable. And a prophetic warning.
But again, even he isn’t fully aware that this is what he’s up to. So how can he expect his listeners to get that this is what he’s up to?
It’s a level confusion. He’s speaking on a metaphysical level and yet being heard on a literal level. And it’s his own level confusion that’s causing the level confusion in his listeners! Worse, however, when his audience gets confused, he just doubles-down and pounds his metaphysical fist, straining his voice to insist that what he’s saying is true! No wonder then, he gets perceived as a tad authoritarian.
And it begins because of his own level confusion about what he’s really up to.
To his credit, he does say that people are often unaware of what they’re really up to. And he has said that he didn’t know “what he was really up to” when he wrote his first book, Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief.
The same is true with this latest book: 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos. He hasn’t yet fully acknowledged, even to himself, what he’s really up to.
Crossing The River Jordan
If Moses wrote the 10 Commandments, Jordan Peterson has written the 12 Rules For Life. But, he still calls himself an academic, not a spiritual teacher. What’s that expression about a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Peterson is a spiritual teacher in an academic’s clothing. Except even he isn’t fully aware of this about himself, not yet. Worse, he’s probably afraid of coming out of the academic closet, for obvious reasons. He’s probably afraid of being labeled as a cult leader or a false prophet (which, interestingly, are the very things for which he stands accused.)
So, he continues to speak in academic language, as if his interlocuters are other academics in the university, as if he’s still trying to prove academically to other academics the truth of his metaphysical claims, as if he’s still trying to apply for the tenure he missed on the Harvard faculty.
But, he’s not speaking to other academics, not anymore. Now, he’s speaking to mainstream culture. And what he’s offering is a spiritual teaching on the nature of Being and the rules of life for mortal humans who are bounded by our existential limitations.
And so, the #1 reason why Jordan Peterson is misunderstood is that he misunderstands himself. Likewise, he’s so often misrepresented because he misrepresents himself.
To use his own words: people don’t get what he’s up to precisely because he himself doesn’t know what he’s up to. That is to say: the cognitive dissonance of his critics stems directly from his own cognitive dissonance. That’s the energy rippling out from his own personal vibrational frequency… (Spoken with a stoner surfer accent, “Woah dude, it’s like, it’s all just energy man. That’s far out.” Yup. Indeed.)
The Eyes of The Blind Shall Be Opened
Peterson’s self-misunderstanding and level confusion are entirely forgivable, in my estimation. I mean, which of us completely and fully knows ourselves, such that we are without sin and free to cast the first stone of judgment?
Nonetheless, on the world stage, for a man to misrepresent himself means he does have blind spots. And it’s these blind spots that are felt by many reasonable and well-meaning observers who are understandably trying to grapple with his entrance on to the world stage. It’s a feeling of, “gosh he sounds so smart, but something feels so wrong about him.”
I would say it like this. And to be clear, I’m saying this with full respect for a man whose teaching I only want to bolster and further.
Layered over the top of Jordan Peterson’s profound metaphysical teaching is a vibration of false pretense.
Meaning: he’s still pretending to be an academic when, in fact, he’s a spiritual teacher. It’s not malicious. But it is an internal inconsistency. And it’s precisely this internal discord that ripples across the collective field and leads to the discordant reactions Peterson receives.
In other words, Peterson hasn’t fully sorted himself out yet.
He’s not in full harmony with who he is, not yet. Which is fine. Which is utterly human. But, it does provoke a real tension, a real cacophony, between his world-beating message and his personal vibrational pulse across the collective field. And it does lead to accusations of hypocrisy.
My own sense is that Peterson’s discordant vibration is based on a false attempt at humility.
He doesn’t want to claim something so apparently grandiose of himself — that he’s a spiritual teacher. And the reason he doesn’t want to is based on your everyday-garden-variety insecurity. It’s based on the eminently reasonable self-assessment of “who am I to call myself a spiritual teacher?”
But the terrible irony is that this inner uncertainty and corresponding attempt at humility is what’s felt by others as something that’s “out of tune” about him, and thus as a reason he’s potentially dangerous or harmful.
In any case, what’s important for him personally is that his lowered estimation of himself means he’s shrinking from his own heroic stature. That is, he’s falling short of his own ideal.
Again, however, to his great credit, he owns up to the “myriad ways in which he continually falls short of his own ideal (his words).” So, it’s not as if he’s pretending to be perfect. Not at all. It’s not as if he’s pretending to have it all worked out either.
He has said, in fact, that he wrote the 12 Rules For Life for himself first of all, as a guide for himself to live by. As such, he is consciously and publicly trying to be in harmony with his own personal limits. He’s at least trying to equilibrate his own vibration. To say it differently, he’s trying to account for his own insecurity and imperfections in the way he presents himself, by playing himself down as merely an academic, an intellectual, and a clinical psychologist.
But, by restricting himself inside the cognitive limits of his own self-judgments and by thus claiming to be something less than “what he’s really up to,” he’s perpetuating an unnecessary discord — born of a real discord within him — between who he says he is and his actual role in our society.
To use language from his first book Maps of Meaning, he’s still stuck in the ego-identity of a college psychology professor and hasn’t yet updated his own map of meaning to shift the paradigm for himself about who he allows himself to be. In layman’s terms: he’s stuck in the past and hasn’t yet embraced what’s present for him.
As a result, in addition to the luminous metaphysical teaching he offers, he’s also sowing, energetically, seeds of personal discord in our collective field.
Towards The Promised Land
Take the thought experiment… Suppose Swami WhomeverAnanda popped up in our popular culture, we’d know immediately how to classify him. There’d be no discord. It would be like “oh, ok, he’s one of those Swami’s teaching us his brand of enlightenment. Ok, got it.” And if we were interested, we might go to one of his lectures or read his books. But, if we weren’t interested, we’d simply change the channel.
Remember too, (if you’re old enough) when Eckhart Tolle first burst onto the scene. His book The Power of Now sold millions; he was on Oprah; celebrities flocked to him; and he made a big cultural splash. But no-one had him confused. No one called him an “enigma.” No one called him “a divisive figure” or a “cult leader.”
And for the most part, no one criticized Tolle. Not really. I mean, certainly, no one was postering whole neighborhoods with fliers trying to get Tolle banned from speaking on their college campus. People either tuned into what Tolle was saying, or they didn’t care.
Waaiiiiittttt a minute!
Maybe it is a good thing that Peterson presents as an enigma. Maybe the enigmatic quality — the inability to quickly classify him — and the corresponding cognitive dissonance that Peterson elicits are what forces people to pay attention, to engage, and to ask questions… so that we can’t simply distract ourselves from reality with reality television.
It calls to mind the words of another evangelist who said, “God works all things together for the good of those who love and serve the Lord (Romans 8:28).” Peterson’s own personal discord — his level confusion, false humility, and academic pretense — are perhaps, in other words, serving a higher purpose.
Which is not to say that I’m endorsing Christian theology! Don’t get me confused. What I’m doing is simply reframing a classic theological teaching to explicate the existential nature of Being. Which is exactly what Jordan Peterson is up to! And by gawd, it’s a heroic undertaking!
He is single-handedly endeavoring to refresh, remix, and reorder the metaphysical hierarchy of rules that have been handed down to us over thousands of years in the Judeo-Christian edifice.
He has literally re-written the rules upon which to order our collective lives and thus our collective hierarchy of who attains status, acclaim, and praise — because those who do better at following these rules will, by definition, ascend to a higher order of competence and admiration in that shared hierarchical ecosystem that is our culture.
Jordan Peterson thus wants to construct a hierarchy of competence based upon these 12 rules that he’s written because, well, umm, the 10 Commandments are just a tad outdated as the rules for us to follow to determine how to order the hierarchy of our cultural competence.
So, if you’re paying attention, then you’ll see that Peterson is actually giving an example, by his own efforts, of what it looks like to redeem a complex cultural hierarchy. He’s modeling the behavior of heroic human redemption of a pre-existing hierarchy. He isn’t trying to smash it, for example. He’s honoring its wisdom while at the same time rewriting its meaning.
And holy moly, it’s a Herculean effort. Wowsers Batman!
It calls to mind one of my favorite quotes by Teddy Roosevelt:
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
And that’s what Jordan Peterson is up to. He’s daring to rewrite the metaphysical narrative that underpins our entire western civilization. And I can’t personally think of a bigger, more important task at hand. And the fact that he’s undertaken this mighty task at all speaks greatly to his courage.
In layman’s terms, Jordan Peterson is a fuckin’ badass.
And it’s this courageous energy that’s rippling mightily across our collective human field. It’s why he’s stirred so many hearts and won so many admirers.
And through it all, through Peterson’s first tantalizing and awkward steps on to the world stage, I’m reminded of Gandhi’s description of himself when he explained that, in fact, he was “a politician who was trying his hardest to become a saint.”
Something similar is true of Jordan Peterson. He’s a scholar who’s trying his hardest to become a saint. Only, I’m not sure he would describe himself like that, not yet anyway.