Reflection 252: Cultural Forces

April 5, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

In CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK, I divide loops of engagement into two segments: on one hand, dimensions of consciousness devoted to perception (including arousal, expectancy, attention, sensory impression, discernment, interpretation, understanding, feeling, and values); and on the other,  dimensions of consciousness preparatory for action (including memory, judgments, decisions, goals, projects, relationships, and planning).

Perceptual dimensions of consciousness lead to consolidation of new memories. Dimensions leading to action combine memory with current values and feelings in planning and executing behaviors appropriate to the current situation as construed by the mind.

That construal (interpretation or construction) of the current situation provides the setting for our looping engagements. That’s where understanding enters the loop as the upshot of the mutual engagement of perception and interpretation. How we understand a given situation determines how we physically behave on any given occasion. Perception, interpretation, and understanding determine the climate in which events occur; action is the specific weather at a given place and time within a specific situation.

Climates of consciousness, in being largely cultural, include the great disciplines of human thought and awareness: economics, politics, theology, healthcare, science, education, military affairs, agriculture, art, fashion, literature, geography, athletics, language, and other components of the cultures we build around ourselves, and which in turn shape our identities.

These cultural influences are aspects of our personal understandings of ourselves as members of particular groups, families, races, and nations as they shape our fields of personal concern. And within those fields of concern, spur the loops of engagement by which we balance our personal awareness against the options for action we see for dealing with our concerns at the moment.

Within our respective cultures, each of us is a distinct individual subject to a unique variety of pressures, interests, and concerns. How we respond in making ourselves happen in the world is influenced by our understanding of both ourselves and our worlds in concert with our feelings and values.

What is truly remarkable about us as a species is the diversity of approaches we take in dealing with our concerns as we construe them according to our experience, understanding, faith, and belief. Some of us follow Catholic ways, some  Protestant or Jewish ways, others Buddhist or Islamic ways. Some of us are democrats, republicans, socialists, communists, fascists, or none of the above. Some make music while others make art, quilts, or batches of beer. Some have families, some have pets, some live in mansions, others in hovels. All according to the mixture of concerns governing how we engage one another and our surroundings.

There is no accounting for the combination of concerns that makes us who we are. Or more accurately, no recalling the forces that acted on us in our formative years when we were young and more helpless than we remember being at the time. Our parents ruled us via their loops of engagements much as we rule our own children, laying down the law in some cases, letting others slip by. But the structure of our understanding of ourselves and our worlds—whether science rules our hearts, religion does, our passions and appetites, or our addictions—the lives we have lived up to now seem sensible to us as the only lives we can refer to, so we live as if we are destined to go on in the same way as before.

If there is a logic to our concerns, it is the logic of precedents from days we barely remember. As we were treated, so do we treat others and call it fair, just, and deserving. Our loops and memories were forged by powerful emotional experiences, most of which we conveniently disremember. In truth, I am still the same little kid I was when I roamed the hills of central New York State in the 1930s, living now as if the conditions that prevailed in those days still apply. My engagements are just that, my engagements because that’s how I learned to make myself happen in my little world. There’s no breaking free from my formative past because it still bears on the neural network that governs my looping perceptions and actions today.

Every one of us is privileged (or condemned) to follow the dictates of our most intimate pasts. Those dictates are rarely codified in so many dos and don’ts, prescriptive formulas, or commands. That isn’t the language our concerns were received in. We duly and emotionally lived them at the time. And they are still with us in the complex neural networks that make up our brains and on which our minds are dependent to this day. We are variations on a theme we first met long ago. We hang around like old songs and poems from childhood, our lives still having the same Mother Goose lilt they did then.

Our religious, political, and cultural beliefs strive to maintain continuity with our childhoods in the deep Paleolithic period of our most intimate selves. We are today descendents of whom we were in those beginning times. We see and hear now as we learned to see and hear then. We think now as we learned to think then. We believe now as we learned to believe because we didn’t know any better in those early days.

So, yes, we look upon the world of today, but see with old eyes, hear with old ears, believe with naive wits, and in all innocence think we behold the world as it is. We are creatures of our acculturation and upbringing to this day. There is no escaping who we were and how we were introduced to the world through engagement with those whose example gave us our eyes and ears, sensitivities and tastes.

We act today by the logic of precedents received in earlier times—as if they were still valid to this day. We may outgrow our clothing but we carry our primal beliefs as if they still fit us as they did when we were brand new.

In fact, the religions, political parties, and philosophies we practice are all in our heads, carryovers from yesteryear, aided and abetted by the cultural institutions we create and maintain to insure we always have a place to go that reminds us who we were and have been ever since. But institutions have particular clout and endurance because they are dedicated to holding fast to our memberships to gain access to our minds in order to set the climate within which we act.

Think of the great temples, mosques, cathedrals, palaces, government buildings, sporting arenas, universities, theaters, and corporate headquarters whose sole purpose is to keep us in our place exactly where they want us. That is, keep our minds in place so that we behave correctly as they would have us behave. Think of the established, authoritarian governments of North Korea, China, Syria, Iran, Russia—and now the United States of America—governments that attempt to institutionalize their peoples lest they wander off track, learn to think for themselves, and risk becoming ungrateful and unruly.

The bigger such climate enforcers become, the stronger they blow on our minds to whip them into conformity. And if they blow our minds away, from the rubble a renewed people arise who are capable of making up their own minds and living their own lives. Freedom is a personal matter that cannot be imposed by force. It is always earned by exercising the creative imagination of unique individuals, and always flows from those few exemplars who show the way. They are true leaders in mapping out the routes we must follow in being truly ourselves. Routes that give glass, steel, and stone institutions a wide berth in sticking to pathways mere mortals can trend on their own.

Invention and discovery are ways to the future; dogma, ideology, and correct performance lock us into the past. The most difficult challenge we face in becoming ourselves is in freeing ourselves from utter dependence on our past histories as institutions preserve them. No one becomes free in an institution. To be free in our minds requires us to grow beyond the influence of our first cultural enforcers so that at last we discover who we are as free agents.

As always, I remain y’rs truly, –Steve

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