“We are the prison and we are the guards who prevent our escape. The simple truth is each of us must escape from ourselves. Clearly, no one can do this for us. We are on our own, completely. Nor can culture, the known, provide an effective escape route. The mental state that created culture and its twin, our personal-social identity, is the source we must escape from. The practice of mindfulness, being completely aware and focused on the present moment, opens the door. A problem can’t be solved at the level of the problem. Complete attention precludes one’s conditioning.”
Of course we need to belong. Life is relationship. The words abandonment, bonding and attachment rest on the primacy of belonging. The relatively new field of epigenetics, the way the environment shapes gene expression, molding the very essence of life to the ever-changing environment, demonstrates how important it is to belong. Belonging is a matter of life and death, and deep down, we know it.
OK, we say; “I got it.” We all want to belong, to be accepted, to be part of the community, so we do what others do. We imprint the mother language, sing the same songs, eat the same food, attend the same schools, watch the same programs, wear the same styles of clothes, and say the same prayers. Beginning with mother and father, we mold ourselves to the customs, beliefs and values of the tribe. Together these codes of social behavior, patterns that have shaped the environment in which we have lived for thousands of years, is called culture.
Culture defines who we are, inside and out. Externally we define ourselves by conforming to the values and expectations that culture presents. Internally, how we perceive and experience ourselves, the very essence of our self-image, is shaped and defined by the mirror culture holds up to us every minute of every day. The thoughts we think and the feelings we feel are, to a very large extent, predefined by culture. Like clay, belonging implies being pressed into a pre-cast mold. But that is not what we are.
Yes, there may be some room to wiggle, what we call individuality, but not much. Wiggle a little too much, fail to conform, not obey or play by the rules, and BAM! You are no longer a member. Not being a member means you are not welcome. Suddenly, the doors to the kingdom slam shut. You are abandoned, alone, psychologically homeless. Not belonging to the social web triggers deeply embodied switches; anxiety, depression, various addictions and self-destructive behaviors. Sometimes what we think is good is bad. The social web has ways of scraping off those who don’t fit. Indeed, belonging is a matter of life and death.
An integral part of what we call culture, this shedding of those who don’t fit, those who do not obey, who no longer pay allegiance and support behaviors that define the tribe, is woven into the life process. This sheading represents a universal life-and-death force that reaches from the simplest cell to the most complex organisms in the known universe, you and me, and is therefore impossible to avoid. Check-mate! The trap slams shut. But wait. Something is wrong with this picture.
We are taught that “being social” is the high road to success. But, who defines what being successful is and at what price? Like the surface of the moon, the history of childhood is potholed with abuse; threats, beatings, incest and rape, to name just a few. We are judged, compared, graded, punished and rewarded from the moment we are born. Century after century we murder each other defending our ideas of faith, nation and race. Today, the more time we spend with “social media,” the more anxious and depressed we become. What we sacrifice for culture’s definition of success is our true human nature and near infinite capacity to learn. Not a good trade, not for a second. Like the mafia, culture makes us an offer we can’t refuse.
Being ‘normal,’ implicit in belonging, means that our interpretations and responses to life are pre-determined, like Pavlov’s dog, automatic and reflexive, but there is no real intelligence in a reflex. The more conservative our self-world view the greater this conditioning sculpts our behaviors. This way, not that becomes automatic. All the other possibilities else is prejudged inferior, if not blatantly wrong. There is an implicit judgement, worse still, a pre-judgement with everything we encounter. And most of this, being reflexive, occurs beneath our level of awareness. The bell rings and we salivate. That is what we become, a bundle of reflexes. It is all we know, and we have fought endless wars and slaughtered untold millions for centuries justifying and defending our pre-judged conditioning. Regardless of the culture or the individual, it’s my way or the highway.
What distinguishes humans from all the others is the capacity to imagine, to use symbols, and now to construct artificial intelligence. Some estimate that the emergence of this extended capacity to imagine blossomed, more or less, 50,000 years ago. Slowly at first, but with exponential complexity, what humans imagined began to replace nature as the epigenetic force that defined what being human looks and feels like. Increasingly, the tribe was defined by ideas and less and less by biology and ecology. For millions of years nature was the pole-star, the guiding force that guided evolution. In a blink of evolutionary time imagined abstractions, morphing into culture, took center stage and pushed Mother Nature off her throne. An imagined judging and vindictive God in the sky rapped Mother Nature in a violent grab for control and he has not stopped, not for a second.
Over these 50,000 years ‘belonging to what,’ which is the core issue, dissolved from identifying with nature and natural processes to increasingly abstract and therefore disembodied imagined concepts. Stories and myths became reified as iconic beliefs; racism, religions, patriotic nationalism, pledges of allegiance, and endless conflicts between images, between beliefs, plunder and wars. There grew a reciprocal dynamic between our interior self-image and the external culture which, on close examination, are mirrors of the other. Belonging defines identity. The primal need to belong became a powerful tool used by culture to maintain and grow its disembodied self, at the expense of our true human design and purpose.
To belong to a counterfeit we must sacrifice our true potential in exchange for the hoped for security culture promises. The ‘rub,’ or knife hidden in the bargain, is that culture uses comparison, judgement, punishments and rewards, all threatening strategies, to maintain our allegiance. Rather than delivering the promised security, we end up feeling constantly observed, compared, graded and threatened in a vain attempt to reaffirm that we belong, a perennial process that sculpts our inner identity, how we experience, define ourselves and relate to others, including the environment. All this, inwardly and outwardly, represents an endless betrayal of the primal need to belong, originally to nature, coopted and captured by human imagination which is often less than sane, less than true. In a word, often mad as a hatter. With our lack of knowing thy self, we lose track of what we are doing, then imagine the phantoms that we create are “real,” like Don Quixote’s windmills.
We don’t really understand the nature of our thought process; we’re not aware of how it works and how it’s really disrupting, not only our society and our individual lives but also the way the brain and nervous system operate, making us unhealthy or perhaps even someway damaging the system.
I am suggesting that the very means by which we try to solve our problems is the problem. The source of our problems is within the structure of thought itself.
Objective thought, as in doing proper science, is necessary. What we are talking about is self-centered thought. We might ask, why is self-centered thought so dangerous? If the self (and its twin culture) were really there (independent from thought), then perhaps, it would correct to center on the self (and culture) because it would be so important, but if the self (and culture) is a kind of illusion, at least as we know it, then to center our thought on something illusory which is assumed to have supreme importance is going to disrupt the whole process and it will not only make thought about yourself wrong, it will make thought about everything wrong so that thought becomes a dangerous and destructive instrument all around.
David Bohm, PhD, Interview with Michael Mendizza, abridged
Betrayed by culture, we misuse our capacity to imagine fighting the mental images we create, not realizing that we created them. And by so doing we waste our true capacity serving and protecting our true nature which is nature. And this defining reciprocal-cycle of betrayal is repeated generation after generation, compounding our miss-attunement with ourselves and the universal forces of nature, a betrayal which now has become so acute that all of us, and everything else, is sliding down a very slippery slope into the sixth mass extinction. Without belonging the child cannot survive. Belong to a betrayed model and nothing can survive.
“Great,” you shout, sliding faster and faster, “What a fine mess you have left us with.” The mass and gravity of this rolling snowball may be too much to stop. We really don’t know. But it looks pretty bad. Clearly, culture is incapable of saving us. There is no security to be found there. On the contrary. The original bargain was a hoax, played on us so early and at such a deep primal levels, before we have the capacity to even conceive of such a swindle, that we all find ourselves trapped in the belonging culture-identity cycle before we learn to talk and talk. So early that the belonging culture-identity cycle became our reality. Culture is the only reality we “know,” and everyone else is, more or less, trapped in, and identified with, the same flawed and destructive reality. And the system, culture, to preserve its own skin, does everything possible to have us believe that its reality is the only one. Anything else is crazy.
The enchanting nature of our explosive capacity to imagine is so powerful that very few ever become aware of what they are doing. They live, more or less pre-defined, mediocre lives enclosed in a mirrored bubble that only reflects itself, filtering out all other possibilities. And those who do manage to peek through the reflections and see…., well, they are cast as nuts or superstitious villains to be dismissed or properly burned at the stake – branding such silliness once-and-for-all, thereby preventing others from ever considering the same capital offense. Ah, screwed if you do and screwed if you don’t! That is how the game is played. Realizing this – what are you to do?
Like a bored bear pacing back and forth in the zoo, those unaware of being in prison spend their pre-programed days rearranging their prison cells. The rare few that do realize they are in prison spend their days planning their escape. Escape from what, you ask? After all, we are reincarnating the prison, moment by moment, by not being aware of what we are doing. We are the prison and we are the guards who prevent our escape. The simple truth is; each of us must escape from ourselves. Clearly, no one can do this for us. We are on our own, completely. Nor can culture, the known, provide an effective escape route. The mental state that created culture and its twin, our personal-social identity, is the source we must escape from. The practice of mindfulness, being completely aware and focused on the present moment, opens the door. A problem can’t be solved at the level of the problem. Complete attention precludes one’s conditioning.
The grand paradox is: everything we know is part of culture and culture shapes our identification with that culture. Like one of those Chinese finger puzzles, the more we use culture to become free from culture, the tighter culture’s grip becomes. Escaping from the prison we create for ourselves is not as easy as it looks. There is an answer, however, it’s not what you think. The quality of one’s attention is the difference that makes the difference. Attention is not a concept, not part of culture, not part of the system that creates the problem. Here is your key.