“Fortunately, some are born with spiritual immune systems that sooner or later give rejection to the illusory worldview grafted upon them from birth through social conditioning. They begin sensing that something is amiss, and start looking for answers. Inner knowledge and anomalous outer experiences show them a side of reality others are oblivious to, and so begins their journey of awakening.
Each step of the journey is made by following the heart instead of following the crowd and by choosing knowledge over the veils of ignorance.”
I spend my days traveling back-and-forth through the urban landscape of NYC, watching, interacting with and sometimes judging other people. These other people exist consistently and in large number. They signify potential personality traits through appearances, body language and actions. Sometimes these observation intuitions and judgements I make subconsciously are correct, oftentimes they are not.
But, like many people in a major city will admit to, one usually doesn’t put in the work to really find out who’s behind the public facades and projected personas of those they judge. We never really take the time to meet the strangers we think we have so cleverly and conveniently stowed away in our conditioned mental categories.
As individuals, we’re of course partly responsible for this prejudiced thinking. We cannot pretend it’s not our imperative to overcome toxic prejudices and presumptions. But there’s also a cultural variable to the equation. You have been conditioned in one way or another nearly every day of your life. Every book your parents read while raising you, advertisement you saw as a child– even the foods and chemicals we consume– can alter our conditioning. You are what you’ve been brought up, through various influences, to be.
I think the vast majority of anxieties one experiences are both self-imposed and culturally-conditioned. In other words, they are false insofar as they are based on the objectification of you as a person. These beliefs replicate and transfer from person to person, until they hit you. And you may not even know that what you fear isn’t really what you fear, but what you’ve been taught to fear. What you are convinced you like may change in a year or a month. This is not always entirely your decision. It’s possible to let cultural conditioning replace individual agency in decision-making.
An example: your run-of-the-mill popular television sitcom relies on a dynamic. The husband has X qualities, the wife has Y qualities, etc. The plot derives from the conflicts resulting from how these qualities intersect. Millions of people watch the show; it garners certain demographics and the content of the commercial breaks calculatedly reflect those demographics.
When you have tens of millions of people watching these exact same 24-minutes of social dynamics, from Modern Family to American Idol to Duck Dynasty, problems occur. The same thing happens when hundreds of million people have been objectively raised to belief in one God and another few hundred million an entirely different God, or when the jocks battle the nerds. The most obvious example of the shortfalls of this standardized media superworld we live in is the American political system, in which majority rule leaves, at the very least, 1/3 of the population seething with angry disappointment at the end of every election. Whoever’s left in will go to great lengths to affirm their group’s interests’ worldview; whoever’s out will work hard to sabotage the other group. This is a pretty schizophrenically low-functioning way to run a society.
Like the shadow-puppeteering from Plato’s cave, these cultural signifiers, while sometimes relevant and beneficial in their artistically or politically cathartic maneuvers, are not reality.
You may say to yourself, “Of course, I am perfectly aware that what I watch on television is not reality.” And you are aware. But such awareness does not change the subconscious effects cultural conditioning has on your day-to-day mode of operation. Whether you like it or not, you are a product of your environment and its tropes, whatever they may be. And if you don’t take them into consideration and deeply question and explore them, you may become entrapped by them.
And so here we are, at the test of your spiritual immune system. This isn’t a test you ever fully pass or fail. It’s a test you’ll be taking for the rest of your life.
Henri Bergson was a 20th-century French philosopher who sought to convey the importance of experience and intuition over the all-too-common 20th century overemphasis of cold scientific rationality. The framework of scientific methodology, while capable of opening doors to medical breakthroughs, technological luxuries and space travel, created (and continues to create) dangerous ideologies when applied to matters of the mind and heart.
Most of how 21st-century cultural conditioning continues to operate was founded on early 20th-century principles of Freudian psychoanalysis, the first truly extensive modern medical attempt to objectify and standardize affairs of the mind (and other body parts).
Psychology, philosophy and cultural critique have made endless advances since the Freudian era, but forces of cultural creation still rely on antiquated ideas of how to influence the subconscious. In other words, your attention has been commodified. Part of properly-adapted 21st century Zen thinking (and curious thinking in general, for that matter) must rely on figuring out how to assert your identity amidst these influencers that would very much like to sort you into a demographic.
While your cultural conditioning may be streamlined or shared with others, your experience of it is not. No one else has had the same sequence of actions and reactions that have created your life and your realm of understanding. No one right now is thinking exactly like you do. You may, to the naked observer, appear to fit into a category, but that category most certainly does not define you. The only quality you share with every other human in the world is your personal understanding that you are just unique enough to operate independently, and just similar enough to others to, in turn, recognize this uniqueness in them.
In a remarkably human and rather beautiful turn of events, your only sameness is your uniqueness. In other words:
“You’re different, just like everybody else.”
This realization is hugely important. It will (and likely already has, at least to some extent) enable you to release yourself from the burden of judging others. As a result, you’ll be similarly freed from directing that hypercritical attitude towards yourself. You will recognize your place within the masses as a somewhat free-thinking island unto yourself, and every individual member’s own place within as such. You understand that every person is embarking on their version of what you think of as ‘your’ journey, and each one is entirely different from the next. As Buckminster Fuller said, we’re all traveling as passengers on Spaceship Earth.
This, while initially overwhelming, is an intensely liberating place to arrive (and thus begin). It’s the starting point for a quest that never ends, where the rewards are scattered about spontaneously along the way. Your spiritual immune system is only as strong as you are free from judgment and fear. Explore what is meaningful to you and allow others to do the same in their way while understanding that they will likely go about their journey on a completely different path.
Picture yourself in a giant labyrinth. Billions of other people are also in the labyrinth, but it is so large and wild that you only see a minuscule fraction of them. At the end of the labyrinth is a nebulous It, a prize with no concrete existence, that means something slightly different to each of the maze’s travelers. You sometimes worry as you wander through the maze if you’ll ever reach It, or if there even is an It. You see some people running through the maze, knocking others over in the process, thirsty to finally discover It. Some people aren’t even moving at all, just hanging out, sitting against one of the tall hedges within the maze.
You can choose to judge the people who are unlike you in how they approach the maze’s challenge. Or, you can talk to them, show them respect and try to learn something from them as you work your way through the maze. You may find yourself in a standstill at times, or in a sprint.
What must be remembered over all else is that you’re in a maze. You’re part of the game, and it’s not just your game– it’s everyone’s. And you know you are intelligent enough to realize that most people could not possibly play it like you do. So enjoy it.