Note: BWIWD = Back When I Was Dying. For earlier chapters, see posts December 9-15. I will collect the entire series for an e-book, once done.
A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF OUR CULTURE, part 1:
Note: In this chapter, I imagine culture as a one-way-mirror skinned bubble, and I draw clear lines between those who live inside it and those who no longer do. I’m aware that the way I frame the discussion may seem so simplistic as to be almost cartoonish. First of all, cultures vary in the range of behavior that they allow. Plus, no one lives entirely inside a culture and no one entirely outside. There are always gradations, and areas where one feels a bit quirky, or carries secrets that if known by others, would signal (unallowed) strangeness. No one is an island, just as no one is cut from the same cookie stamp.
Moreover, no matter how much an outsider someone might feel from the culture that he still (appears, to insiders) to live inside of, he does, at some level, still live inside it — despite that he actually did at some point pop through its skin and now sees back through, to notice how the culture is structured, what makes it tick, how others are still caught like spiders in its web. No one is entirely immune to the perpetual flow of subliminal influence. The culture flows through us always; insiders and outsiders both are relentlessly being conditioned by what’s around them. Those who wish to live outside the bubble must continuously shake off subliminal and other conditioning lest it infiltrate and infect them again into thinking they’re inferior, ignorant or crazy, need the guidance of authorities, and should, nay MUST obey cultural laws, forms, orders, taboos.
I say this as an outsider for nearly 40 years who still finds herself continuously shaking off subliminal influences. As fast as they bombard my subconscious, I try to notice and move them along. And I am aware of various behavioral memes that anchor me into the culture. For example, I automatically choose the longest line at the grocery store in order devour People magazine (it’s my version of “junk food”). And, I notice myself addicted to email [2018 edit: and now, phone texts], a form of communication that, more and more, replaces personal meetings and phone calls.
Email addiction is but one symptom of what my outsider self considers truly alarming: how my personality is synchronized into western culture’s endless technological amplification of complexity and connectivity, all of which tends to fracture focus, reduce attention span, and leave us exhausted and depressed. Ultimately, constant adrenal stimulation crashes our biological system, and we “fall ill,” in body, mind and soul.
For the past 40 years I have also endeavored to practice awareness of the present moment in the midst of being automatically plugged into culture’s chaotic atomization of the seamless web of life. It may be that my outsider status and this practice are connected. They may even be one and the same. In any case, please realize that I, too, view the following rough sketch of how a culture’s inside/outside dichotomy works with a very large grain of salt.
Yet please do bear with me, for there is a case to be made, and insight gained, when we imagine the culture as a one-way mirror-skinned bubble.
Introduction: Open and Closed Systems
When I was a doctoral student in the philosophy of science at Boston University, one of my friends, a doctoral student in mathematics at Harvard, told me that he didn’t believe that science could ever discover Truth. Not because he was cynical; nor did he hold the then sophisticated view that at best, science could only expose falsity. His view was simpler, more radical, and offered in the spirit of glum resignation.
Any test of a scientific theory, he said, works with a finite slice of the cosmos. How do we know that the same laws apply universally? Since we don’t know where the edge of the universe is, or, even if the universe has an edge, then we can’t, no matter how much we learn about it, claim to understand the laws that govern it as a whole. At the time I felt flummoxed by Michael’s idea, and didn’t want to consider it seriously. My intellectual need for certainty — a mask for my emotional need for security — was too profound.
Now I can admit that it does appear — at least from our earthly perspective, but who knows? — “true” that only closed systems can be scientifically described and their future predicted. That only if we determine the boundaries of a system, and only if those boundaries are impermeable, closed to outside influences, can we learn what it’s made of, what it’s for, how it works for sure.
We like to think that what we call Nature, for example, has predictable laws. (We certainly hope they’re predictable, otherwise how do we predict and control the future?) For example, that water flows downhill and hot air rises; that day follows night and spring follows winter; that seeds incubate, sprout, flower; that a sperm penetrates the egg to create new life. But even Nature’s laws, we are learning, seem to be relative and not absolute. Not only does Nature offer us seemingly endless complexities and even multidimensionalities that must be ignored when we attempt to understand her within the artificial boundaries we loop around our “controlled experiments,” she also appears, as a dynamical system, to be open. In other words, the laws of nature can change, not just in continuous minute ways, but suddenly, drastically, and with no little or no warning — and no way to even look back to discover what happened or why.
Even our biosphere as a whole — Earth and her atmosphere — seems to be an open system, its edges permeable to influences from surrounding space. Yet, despite the accumulating evidence, those who see themselves as in touch with Nature (fewer and fewer, given the glare of constant artificial light) want to think that we can trust Nature and natural laws; that at least here we can find our feet in some kind of common ground.
But — and here’s the rub — what kind of “trust” are we talking about? A trust that’s synonymous with predictability? Or another kind of trust — subtler and more ineffable, a reliance on or surrender to the mysterious sense of feeling at home, cared for, beloved, at one with the whole of creation. Though we might think that we trust nature because we see her laws as predictable, those who spend time in nature and who are open to the experience, may find themselves sinking into this latter type of trust as a sense of communion with the heart of being.
Within this culture’s bubble, however, “trust” does mean predictability. We trust that our paychecks will arrive on time twice each month; we trust that “God,” however we view him or her, is “on our side,” and then wrestle with “why bad things happen to good people.” We trust that people will drive on the right side of the street and stop at stop signs; we trust that if we fall sick our insurance will cover the expense; we trust that our social and commercial and religious and governmental structures and laws and the roles we play and rules we go by try to guarantee only certain sorts of behavior so that we can, hopefully, at least some of the time, predict and control what happens to us.
We’ve all noticed how this kind of trust is being severely challenged during these post-millennial years. Trust as predictability is eroding at the same rate as other cultural trends accelerate. Loss of trust as predictability destabilizes; makes us uneasy, stirs up terrible feelings, alters our attitudes, makes us clutch and strive to protect what we have while grasping for more.
So what would it mean “to find our feet in some kind of common ground” that did not involve trust as predictability? I suggest that there is a more radical and less enculturated, even less biological kind of trust involved when we truly feel our way into the actual recognition that we’re all in this together: that we all feel the same thudding in the stomach when something we expected to go a certain way because it always did suddenly changes, lurches into an entirely different direction, transforms into its opposite or worse, drops off the map.
This kind of trust is spiritual, metaphysical: we sense ourselves as a mere drop in an ocean of being that intermingles all of creation, and in which we humans slosh together in waves, each of us a tiny quivering receptor for the feelings and attitudes and belief systems and pain and love and joy that courses through us all.
Unless we experience our own center as that through which all this is flowing, then the commingling of everything with everything else not only confuses but terrifies. And of course, it doesn’t meet with our rational expectations of ourselves as being able to figure out what is going on, as a series of linear causal chains.
So we try to build walls against our own quivering sensitivity. Indeed, we don’t need to build them, but just to maintain them, and continue to fortify them; for those walls were built long, long ago, when we were very young, so young that most of us don’t realize they enclose us in a prison of the culture’s making. The stronger the walls that (apparently) separate ourselves from our surroundings, the less in touch are we with our inner center. For what surrounds us and what is inside us reflect the same reality. So, the more we try to ward off our interconnectedness, the worse we feel: empty, isolated, unsafe, unloved.
So trust, in this context, is taking down the walls. Allowing the original absorption into the whole of being to fill us again with such endless potential, abundance and creativity that we realize it can only come from a world larger than the one we think we inhabit. For we don’t understand this larger world; it feels mysterious. Trust then, in this larger sense, is surrender to mystery.
Yet this kind of trust might be mistaken for conditioning in that it also flows through us always, but for one crucial difference, and this depends on us opening to an awareness of the present moment. Where awareness exists, the walls do not. As we expand our awareness, the walls thin and dissolve, rather like the Sun dispels fog. Ultimately, awareness practice re-introduces us to the whole of being in which we live and move and wherein we feel connected, safe, and beloved. Within this context that is larger than the culture’s bubble, we notice how we are being conditioned, rather than simply succumb to it. (And when we do unconsciously succumb to it, the more we practice awareness, the less time it takes to pull ourselves out.
Spiritual, metaphysical trust involves an expansion into love, rather than contraction into fear. Awareness widens to include the entire external situation in which we appear to be held as well the thoughts, feelings, and patterns of our inner world — all as one seamless whole. This higher level trust requires us to identify not with the self and its needs alone but with what at some point appears as an unbounded, infinite, all inclusive field or space with no edges and therefore no possibility of rational comprehension. Rather than living inside a one-sided mirror-walled bubble while thinking ourselves free, we are free — to roam through endless, unbounded expansiveness.
This single internal switch, from trust as predictability to trust as awareness of the ocean of being in which we are all held, shifts consciousness into a larger dimension wherein the insider/outsider distinction dissolves into unity and transforms the edge of the bubble from a closed system into a transparent, living, breathing membrane.
Not only are biological systems open, with permeable boundaries that, when infiltrated, can change the state of the whole, so too are social systems. For it may be that when such collective awareness is achieved by even a certain small percentage of people, it alters the entire society, and enlarges the horizons of possibility for everyone.
Its hard to imagine that this kind of social transformation could happen anytime soon. And yet it must happen sooner rather than later if we are to survive on this planet with dwindling external resources. We outsiders who have already recognized necessity through our own (at least periodic) surrender to the ocean of being know that such a transformation is possible, for it has changed us. And this makes us view those still inside with a terrible poignancy.
For when we see ourselves as living in a world of finite resources — and this is true of any bubble, any bounded field — then when we lose trust as predictability, we grow afraid. Territorial and survival instincts surface. We try to cocoon ourselves in our own little bubbles, for fear of others’ territorial and survival needs. We clamp onto systems of belief that claim to insure certainty and capacity to predict and control. We separate ourselves and those we “trust” (to be predictable) via class distinctions, locked doors, gated communities, border fences, membership rules, and the myriad ingenious ways humans have created to insulate themselves from the unknown Other.
For those inside the cultural bubble, even marriage, family, company loyalty and nation states, long bastions of protection from outside influences, have proven not only permeable, but explosive.
Amidst the relentless entropic tendency of everything to eventually disintegrate and reconfigure as it connects with and interpenetrates everything else — amidst the ultimately inevitable but meanwhile held-in-denial surrender to the ocean of being — social systems are biased towards self-preservation just as forms of all kinds and at whatever level of magnitude seem to be — or are they? Another unknown. How long do butterflies live? Do they care?
Culture: Inside and Outside
Most people live inside whatever culture they grew up in. A society (and its dominant language) functions emotionally and mentally as a shared container and framework: it supports and nourishes those who stand upon its ground, and it unites them with a set of rules and taboos that enable them to communicate and share seemingly fundamental values.
Any culture operates as both an unnoticed security system and a usually unnoticed set of constraints. It’s as if we all have on a set of glasses with a certain prescription. We’ve had them on since before we remember, so we don’t realize that they mediate our experience of reality. Our cultural glasses don’t feel uncomfortable or heavy. They are ever present, like the air we breathe and the ground under our feet, a shared context to help us make sense of our lives.
Though we don’t realize it, our glasses frame up the world in a certain sort of way and allow for only certain possibilities that tend to reappear over and over again. In general, we think of future possibilities as predicated upon past expectation, so it appears that only what happened before can or should happen again. Exceptions are called “anomalies,” and usually despised or ignored. This attitude pervades even the supposedly open-minded culture of science.
Of course, it is never actually true that what happens next must have happened before. Indeed, at any level of detail, nothing ever remains the same — and when we stop to think about it, we know this. Yet in order to give form to seeming chaos, humans cannot help but seek patterns. And whenever we think we detect a pattern, we are liable to latch on to it, use it to bet on the future and try to control what happens. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that even patterns change over time. That everything changes, evolves, grows, decays. New experiences continuously break through the weight of (no matter how broad our range of) expectation.
One way to assess a culture’s resilience is to ask how well and easily its basic assumptions allow for change, especially structural change. How far will the framework bend before breaking? How much disorder can be introduced into any (apparently, hopefully) closed system before it disintegrates?
The same goes for individuals. Evolution selects for adaptability. The more we fear change, the more rigid we become, the less our capacity to let go of expectation and flow with life — and death.
No matter how rigid the culture’s framework and conformist its members, every culture spawns individuals who are or become more adaptable than their fellow citizens. Despite our lifelong need as an embodied beings for emotional and physical security, these rare ones sometimes find themselves changing at such a rate that at some point they come up against the inside skin of their culture’s bubble and pop right through to the other side.
This switch in status can happen slowly, or in a flash, and either way, it feels traumatic. Suddenly, or gradually, the newly fledged outsider finds himself cut off from normal communication with those still inside the bubble since, by definition, those inside can no longer see or understand him. Since they do not recognize a wider range of possibilities than those the cultural glasses identify, insiders do not see beyond the bubble — or even, that they reside inside a bubble. From the inside, the bubble’s skin appears as a mirror, reflecting back to its beholders who they think they are and how they see themselves. Anything outside the bubble is literally unthinkable, unimaginable. And whoever thinks or imagines another way, is considered ignorant or crazy.
So a profound asymmetry exists between those caught inside and those free to roam outside. For though some of those outside can be considered “crazy” — if by “sanity” we mean social agreement, then the really crazy ones are lost in their own internal worlds — other outsiders are full of crazy wisdom, since they can see through the skin of culture’s bubble to the bounded world within it. And for them, the behavior of those inside now looks, by and large, predictable, even silly, or truly crazy!
(There are many versions of “crazy.” For me: truly crazy is one who bites off one’s own tail, fouls his own nest; thus suicidal, against the natural order, or at least what appears to be the natural behavioral order that enhances survival in Earth’s very specific biome.)
(The bubble’s skin is like the one-way mirror of a room used to view, unnoticed, criminal interrogations or therapeutic encounters conducted inside a smaller room.)
To sum up and extend the asymmetries: Those inside the bubble can’t understand those outside, though some outsiders can, if they wish, understand insiders. Those outside, to those inside, when acknowledged at all, seem strange. Outsiders see insiders as predictable (and thus boring, silly), and since outsiders are relatively rare, they tend to feel alone, isolated, misunderstood, invisible, abandoned — the price paid for the enhanced freedom of thought and movement granted by an enlarged perspective (from their point of view) and reduced status (from the insiders’ point of view).
Those outside don’t have the same relationship to each other as those inside do. Insiders share a set of assumptions about reality and do not recognize their assumptions as limited to the bubble within which they live. Those outside the bubble live in a larger universe; some of them recognize, but do not share, the assumptions of those inside. They may or may not share assumptions with other outsiders. But outsiders usually do recognize each other without too much trouble, since, at the very least, they tend to be less dependent on others’ approval.
But that’s only the first clue. After all, they might be just crazy, meaning sociopathic!
For me, as an outsider, one sure way that I utilize to decide whether or not seeming “strangers” actually do live (mostly) inside or outside western culture is to notice how they work with polarities. If they identify with one side of any duality and hate or reject the other, then I assume they live inside the bubble, still caught in the drama of competition, seeking to best the other rather than embrace both the other and the rejected shadow quality of the self.
Those I consider genuine outsiders work hard, despite breathing the thick, poisoned air of continuous dualistic conditioning — no, let’s go further, let’s call it brainwashing — to recognize, accept and embrace the reality of both sides of any polarity, to understand the relative value of each pole within its own limited context, and the still relative value of the polarity as a whole within an even larger context. This continuous opening, to understand and embrace any whole as nested within another, larger whole, and to which all its parts belong like the workings of a machine, is the key to outsider independence. For the mental machine constructed from off/on digital polarities prescribes the computer program of the culture’s glasses, the framework or structure that holds the bubble in place. Outsiders, but not insiders, can not only see this but are bent on deprograming themselves.
Sometimes outsiders try to “explain” their freed-up world-view to those on the inside. After all, they’re also human, and seek company! They try to describe how “projection” works; how, when confronted with something that feels like a contradiction, the unconscious pushes out into the world one side of that contradiction — usually a quality of one’s inner life that feels uncomfortable or even monstrous, completely unacceptable to the conscious view of the self. From there it is one easy step from projection to labeling. The person or situation that is made to carry the projection then gets demonized as bad or wrong or evil.
When outsiders explain this to insiders, some are actually ready to hear it, and the recognition makes them stop short, let go of their drama, at least for a moment. For example, the other day I was talking with a feminist who hates domination and violence and is extremely fired up by the culture’s rejection and denial of the aging process. We were talking on the phone, and every time she stopped to catch her breath I would try, and fail, to get a word in. Her angry rant was not only hurting my ears but slamming my solar plexus. I was trying to stop her from continuing her loud, repetitive critique of what we both know.
The firehouse spewed on and on, with me trying and failing to intervene, always politely. Finally, I yelled at her, “STOP! Just STOP!” That got her attention. Then, into the space of her sudden silence, in a carefully modulated tone I told her that her tone of voice felt both dominating and violent — exactly what she’s trying to stomp out and what she herself doesn’t want to be doing. In response, her voice faltered, softened, sounded crestfallen: “Well, what you say hurts. And it’s not the first time I’ve heard it . . .” She paused, and then, almost whispered, “I’m not allowed to see my own grandchild because I’m ‘too intense’” — then, as if she had to pull back from any further opening — she concluded with a sarcastic swipe: “whatever that means.”
It’s scary to open. Scary to allow one’s boundaries to become permeable. Scary to proceed in a direction that if persisted, leads to cultural death and rebirth as a unique and individuated person on the other side of the cultural wall.
I really felt for her at that moment. She is me. I used to be what I now call a “violent peace activist” — until I learned to see and work with the war inside myself. Hopefully, that moment of clarity in our conversation will help Pat learn to take back her own projections so that she too, can finally break through the skin of the bubble and experience real freedom.
But though some insiders are ready to recognize the inside of the bubble as, when you rub off the muck that covers it, a clear, all-seeing mirror, most are not. Those who are not want to push back the words into the speaker’s mouth and blame him or her as bad or evil for having judged them. Without realizing it, they instantly demonstrate the truth of the outsider’s portrayal of projection.
However, unless those on the inside are ready to take the next step, initiating the perilous journey of popping through the skin of the bubble into what is sensed from the inside as the vast unknown — they simply can’t hear — or care, or bear — what the outsider is trying to convey. They are still satisfied with the apparent — though relative — security offered by life in the bubble. Having not yet bumped up against the bubble’s skin, they haven’t realized that there is a world beyond; for they haven’t yet gotten to the point where they sense the inside of the bubble as a relatively closed system, more or less predictable, and ultimately both boring and suffocating.
Even outsiders, however, usually don’t move too far away from the bubble, since after all, it’s home, where they came from. Some want to break down the boundaries between them and those inside, and, once they realize that hating the bubble just thickens its skin — and, as a matter of fact, since hate always involves projection, injects them right back into the bubble! — they begin to see that their appropriate path is to gracefully and artfully live at culture’s edge. Not inside it, and not far away, either. In this manner they can show, by example, how courage enlivens us, helps us learn to flow with the mysterious dynamics of a universe way larger than the bubble. In their position as change agents on the edge of culture, outsiders make themselves accessible to those who begin to wake up and realize that in order to breathe freely, they too, must break free.
In these ways, outsiders can serve as mentors and exemplars, showing others a way of life beyond the seemingly predictably secure confines of the bubble, a larger life infinitely richer and more interesting than the bounded one inside. They know that once insiders get a good taste of it, they can’t help but hunger for more.
It’s with real anguish that those living on the outside edge see/feel the sufferings of those inside. They have to stop themselves from trying to drag them out into the light, so that they too, might wake up from the collective nightmare. But they know they cannot; that each person must make his or her own journey, and that, in fact, there is no way that anyone can push or shove or even entice another to go through the skin. Only when they find they can no longer breathe in the stifling air will they start to instinctively nose their way to the edge.
This transforms into the moment of greatest peril. The person is nosing the inside edge, may even be poking tiny holes into it, getting little whiffs of fresh air. But what’s out there? Whatever it is, it seems so strange compared to what’s in here, and until he or she can get past thinking that a known bad is better than an unknown good, a person can get stuck right there, on the inside edge, no longer believing in what’s inside, and yet still too scared to break through.
Here I remember my mentor in graduate school. He knew that the world he was living in (that of positivist philosophy, itself the so-called “common-sense” of academic philosophy) was a dead end, and he also knew that he did not have the courage to leave it behind. He was in his mid-life crisis when I became his student, and he used my evolutionary thrust as the tip of his sword, to poke fun at and generally cause an uproar in an academic philosophy department whose world-view he felt both caught in and alienated from.
Some people might spend lifetimes stuck to the inside edge of the bubble before they get to the point of total suffocation and break though, despite their fear. They get to the point where life on the inside is no longer viable. It’s either change or die.
Their fear is natural. For the journey through the skin of the bubble is a one-way trip. We cannot leave and return without having been so affected that we can never again feel even moderately satisfied with life inside. Once we experience the extreme power of the unleashed life force itself flowing through us it feels impossible to consciously choose to continue to participate in a system that chokes off life.
So it’s wise to prepare ourselves before breaking through.
But how to prepare? For if life is predictable on the inside, the basic hallmark of life outside the bubble is its unpredictability. And, of course, with lack of predictability comes lack of control. We just don’t know what’s going to happen. We have no choice but to trust the universe.
But what does it mean, “trust the universe?” For of course, life outside the bubble is also in a bubble, a context of meaning that, while larger than the culture’s, we can assume is still bounded, somehow, in some way. Just because we’ve gotten out of one set of chains doesn’t mean that there isn’t another, subtler set of constraints. We may call ourselves “free,” but what we mean is that we are free of the constraints that we recognize.
For now, let’s call this larger bubble that encloses the smaller cultural bubble “the solar system bubble.”
The main difference between the “solar system” bubble and any cultural bubble is that we don’t know where its skin is. It is so far outside our realm of awareness and comprehension that none of us will ever live to get some kind of “take” on it as a whole, some way to get its measure and to understand it as a framework. Not in a single human lifetime will the diameter of the “solar system” bubble reveal itself. We are always swimming, as it were, in a seemingly infinite sea.
So how do we find our feet? What lies “under” our standing that we can take for granted? That we can say, “this, I know, for sure”? How, without a clear and definite context, do we know what point of view to take, how to move, how to judge one thing better than another, or even how to discern differences? No matter how much we learn, it will never be enough; we can never say that we’ve mastered anything, because we can never consider all the variables.” There’s always more, and we know it.
But why is this so? How can we take the measure of the cultural bubble, but not of the larger bubble that encloses it? While cultural insiders might seem boring and predictable to outsiders, but what does that mean, really? What do the outsiders have that the insiders don’t? Why do some people become outsiders and some stay inside? How come some make it through the wall and some get stuck to the inside edge? How to get a better understanding of what it means to be an outsider, rather than an insider? What makes outsiders tick?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I doubt you do either. But I do know of a language that might help us understand the questions better, and to help broaden and deepen the discussion.