When we talk about creating positive change, we often look first at ourselves, our search for purpose and for how we can create a lasting ripple effect on the world around us. At the other end of the discussion is our need for a global community where we value compassion and cooperation. However, there is a missing element connecting action to vision in positive global change – our cultural conditioning and the beliefs and priorities shaping our society.
Speaking about “culture” is a complex topic that’s not for the faint of heart, especially when it comes to possibly critiquing its virtues and values. To be clear, in this conversation, I’m referring to “culture” defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as:
a) the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group
also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time
b) the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
c) : the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic
In a time when one status update can create a social media frenzy of enraged citizens, this is precarious discussion. Which is probably why it has been pushed aside for too long when analyzing how we can create lasting change in our current climate of violence, inequality and materialism. We are quick to defend our culture and its values, but are we defending the highest ideals of our culture or are we simply reacting in a defensive mode to preserve an antiquated or distorted version of our cultural background?
It’s time we took a look at our cultural conditioning; “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices” that seem to be pushing our agendas. Whether we are conscious of these habits or not, we must make an honest inquiry into how we can realign our cultural communities in a way that prioritize deep, conscious intention rather than our ego’s intention shaped by “customary beliefs, social forms and material traits” that no longer serve us or our communities.
Cultural Conditioning in our Evolution
I believe culture, in and of itself, is innately concerned with self-preservation and is very conservative. It doesn’t necessarily evolve naturally, and can even bog down the evolutionary process if we aren’t consistently evaluating what cultural behavior, values and priorities we are perpetuating.
In our evolutionary beginnings, when we formed small communities, protective tribal culture arose as a natural positive offshoot. Culture was required to preserve our species. This was a matter of survival and to do so required a unified group effort with strong bonds between its members. A culture of beliefs and social behavior was beneficial to hold society together and to give a sense of identity to each individual in the group.
As we traversed our evolutionary wave, however, this sense of identity became fragmented as our populations grew and spread across the world. Our evolutionary journey from hunter and gatherer, to animal husbandry and into the industrial revolution moved humanity away from the preservation of a species, to one that protected our individual egos in an illusion of separation from the Source. Technology gave us more or less the freedom to live without fear of being attacked by sabre tooth tigers, and a need for cultural values of cooperation unraveled to the egotistical intentions of our material pursuits. Cultural values began to shift toward survival of the fittest, rather than survival of the community.
This cultural priority on the “I” is even more prevalent in today’s modern world. We are immersed in the knee-jerk, reactionary approach of the times, almost seen as a badge of honor in our cultural practices. We find ourselves on the brink of a global cultural trough weighed down by materialism and sourced by fear and separation.
We see people engaged in acts of nationalism, racism, fundamentalist religious views and violence. Apart from fear and fear-mongers, the real problem is that culture can’t see its own way forward in re-prioritizing its values toward love and cooperation, rather than greed, individualism and scare tactics. This inability to shift our cultural characteristics creates stagnation, while also creating a dangerous whirlpool of regression.
As twentieth-century mystic, philosopher and spiritual teacher, George Gurdjieff explains, there is a natural process of evolution which has intervals, or wave troughs that we encounter. It often requires some kind of shock to the system to get through these intervals and if we don’t provide the shocks in our transformative process, the world will do it for us to continue the evolutionary wave.
This is because we can get stuck in a metaphoric “eddy” in our evolution, a whirlpool that blocks the flow of transformation. When the cultural values within our country, political affiliation and religious beliefs begin turning in toward the fearful and insecure “me, me, me” source of intention, well, we can already see its negative impact on our societies around the world.
Gurdjieff cited religious wars as one of the worst examples of this inversion effect of cultural conditioning, when the original high principles of our wisdom traditions are used to justify horrific acts of violence toward other humans in the name of the respective religious version of a superior being. Today we see this cultural inversion effect in Gurdjieff’s intervals of transformational flow playing out, thankfully, less on the actual battlefields, but more widely as cultural estrangement from other groups, leading to psychological vilification of tribes other than our own. And with many cultural values now so tainted by materialism, artistic expression and sociopolitical thought are faced with an almost insurmountable challenge to find new frontiers of creativity.
Our cultures are getting bogged down in fear-based and materialistic interpretations of their former higher essences. Whether it is our work culture, our country’s culture, our spiritual culture or even our preference of artistic culture, these group values condition us with varying standards that can often seem in conflict with each other. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to base our behavior on any sort of universal values when we are receiving such convoluted cultural messaging.
One example, shared in a podcast by psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, offers a bit of insight. In her conversation, she shares the story of Butch Hancock, who describes his hometown’s conflicting religious messages. “Life in my small town taught me two things. One, is that ‘God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell.’ And the other is ‘sex is the most awful filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love.’”
This is a dramatic example, but does inspire a bit of deeper inquiry into the mixed messages we are receiving within our own culture(s). Adam Crabtree, psychotherapist, ordained Catholic priest and author, also discusses the challenges of mixed messages in his book “Evolutionary Love and the Ravages of Greed.” He says: “All the great religions have shown remarkable blindness of the moral contradictions they foster in their teachings on the practice of love.” The spiritual pursuit is an important one, but does require a level of responsibility for ongoing inquiry into how these teachings shape our perspectives.
Cultural mixed messaging is not limited to our religious communities. We also need to be constantly aware of how our cultural behaviours are shaped by our political affiliations, social circles and work place environment.
Educational systems around the world can also fall prey to promoting conflicting ideas, encouraging inquiry and innovation while pushing back against ideas that might shake the foundation of an area of study or the institution itself. “The paradox of education,” as described by James Baldwin, “is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”
These examples aren’t meant to describe or define an entire culture, or intended to be a critique of one particular community, but rather a way each of us can reflect on the conditioning and experiences that might shape our personal and social agendas.
Shifting Our Cultural Conditioning Through Deep Intention
Can we honestly say within our culture that a moral compass of love and peace is truly valued? Is that the priority inspiring our attitudes and goals as we seek the support of our communities?
A quick browse of new films and television series holds up a mirror to what seems to be truly driving the general population these days: violent action plot lines, terror and suspense. It could be classified almost as a sickness that people find it entertaining to voluntarily endure a few hours of graphic violence in the cinema, yet most of us don’t have time to meditate and be present for 20 minutes a day. No wonder we cannot find consensus within the polarized political scene. Too often, our motivations are sourced from division and anger as the driving factors of action, rather than a heartfelt need to unite.
Changing these preferences and motivational triggers, however, is easier said than done.
Around the world, cultures condition us to unconsciously form habits that preserve the values of money, individual status, material accumulation, and constant busyness in our career and lives to show self-worth. When a culture drives these materialistic values, habits form in the unconscious behavior of its tribe. This is why being intentional and present to our sense of soul-based purpose is so important.
And I don’t mean intention in the way of aspiring to do something good, or to just want positive change. This requires embodied intention, from moment to moment, in mind, body, heart and soul. It’s not enough to intellectually embrace change; we have to live our affirmations for transformation in the thoughts, action and behavior of our daily lives.
Shifting societies’ attitudes, priorities and goals is made even more difficult by the fact that cultural values don’t reward the long-term commitment to a practice in transformation. These are the times of one-class workshops to enlightenment, weight-loss with a pill, speed reading and showing your love through Instagram likes and emojis.
Slowing down to understand deep purpose is not in the best interest of cultural preservation, but to alleviate our cultural stagnation requires radical change. As Richard Baker Roshi, disciple of Suzuki Roshi, reminds us: “Transformation and awakening comes down to two things. Intention and attention.”
Simple words but far from easy to achieve. When our attention spans are diminishing and our culture strives to preserve the shiniest, the flashiest and the most stimulating, it is difficult to truly transform. Our culture is characterized by an onslaught of attention-diminishing notifications, social media status updates, heated emotional reactions to opinions that aren’t the same as our own and isolation. To apply a shock to our cultural stagnation, we must begin by unraveling our habitual patterns and negative social norms. It’s not a glamorous quick fix either. We have to constantly practice, correcting course over and over. Only then can we become aware of the unconscious field of cultural bias in our psyches and begin to bring intention and attention to a shift toward universal cultural values that move us into an evolutionary flow.
What We Can Do to Shift Cultural Characteristics and Values
For a cultural shift to happen, we can’t just change the message and then go forward with the same basic assumptions and ego-inspired agenda. We have to do the individual scale work to get in touch with our innate potential and purpose, and make sure the essence of our community action is really coming from the right intention.
Engaging in intentional shadow work, both personally and as a collective is an important starting point. This is involves honest reflection, meditation and practice to uncover the layers of conditioning that drives our action.
Another key commitment to transformation begins with deep listening. When we are unconsciously culturally influenced, the first thing we stop doing is listen to the “other side’s” perspective.
Traveling abroad and cultural exchange opportunities are one example of ways to engage in deep listening, but even these experiences still require intention and attention to the lessons provided. Even the best intentions to appreciate a different way of life can be hindered by our innate need to defend our cultural upbringing. Unless we are able to listen without assumptions, we won’t be able to listen without bias. Without being conscious of our cultural bias, we can’t begin to revise the values and behaviors that hold back our cultural evolution.
Intentional reflection in shadow work and practicing deep listening are on the fringes of most cultural values, and this is why to truly shift our societies we also need supportive communities. Each of us has the power to create changes by bringing together small groups of like-minded people in support of shifting cultural values toward love and cooperation. In fact, it is essential that we have a network to fall back on for strength, inspiration and creativity.
A ripple effect of change requires setting an example for what a new cultural shift could look like, rather than preaching and lecturing on its values. Clinical psychologist, scientist and president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Cassandra Vieten, PhD, explains that bombarding people with data will not win them over. In fact, studies show that data is only 10% of the influence on our decision-making process. What truly formulates our worldview is our tribes, communities and social structures we move within. Dr. Vieten’s work reiterates the point that we aren’t going to transform people by data; we have to create and grow communities of an emerging or different worldview.
Fighting against a system that’s culturally conditioned to preserve itself is exhausting and lonely work. For most of us, it is difficult and sometimes even dangerous to challenge a community consensus. This is why community building is so essential. Without dedicated spaces fostering cultural evolution, people won’t embody lasting change.
These are no doubt challenging times we are facing, but we do have the resources to create a positive and sustainable shift. Maybe the revolution we are seeking isn’t against the tyranny of an individual or government, but rather the cultural conditioning driving our unconscious habits. However, rather than waiting for a catastrophe, or whatever shock the system may have in store for us, it would be preferable if we took the initiative to administer our own cultural shock toward transformation.
Fortunately, it only takes only a small number of dedicated individuals to form a ripple effect of universal cultural values driven by compassion and cooperation. Through deep reflection on our own conditioning, and by support from a purpose-driven community, we can begin to nourish our individual soul-based drive while supporting the positive cultural evolution of a larger global family.
Ready to take action in evaluating cultural conditioning, while connecting to a deeper sense of purpose?
If you are interested in trying to form your own small community of sacred activism to spur the leap to a more universal cultural value system, you might consider signing up for the Purpose to the People free online course being offered Feb. 27th by the Global Purpose Movement.
You can find application to register here.