Do you live an examined life? More people think so than actually do.
If some of your deeply held values, views, and approaches to life were dead-ended by millions before you, would you want to know? If so, keep reading. If not, I wish you all the best!
As a doorway into this subject, let’s use the current state of our divided society. Many of us suffer over the culture wars and increasing disharmony in our society. If you wonder “How we got here” and look to the last few decades, you’ll find neither compelling answers nor effective solutions.
To accurately diagnose how we got here and be able to help, we must understand how what’s happening is a completely logical conclusion of something that began over 500 years ago. We must understand the relatively recent history of the evolution of consciousness.
If I didn’t lose you at “history,” perhaps I did at “the evolution of consciousness,” right? This has everything to do with you. Allow me to demonstrate with a brilliant scene from The Devil Wears Prada. You can watch it here, if you like.
Miranda Priestly: Where are the belts for this dress? Why is no one ready?
Jocelyn: Here. It’s a tough call. They’re so different.
Andy Sachs: (snickers under her breath)
Miranda Priestly: Something funny?
Andy Sachs: No. No, no, nothing’s … you know, it’s just that … both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y’know, I’m still learning about this stuff, and uh … (giggles uncomfortably)
Miranda Priestly: This … “stuff?” Oh, okay. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You … go to your closet, and you select … I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back, but what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.
You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that, in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns, and then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it? … who showed cerulean military jackets. I think we need a jacket here.
Miranda Priestly: And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores, and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.
However, that blue represents millions of dollars of countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room … from a pile of “stuff.”
What Miranda says about fashion is true. It’s also true about philosophy, spirituality, and religion. Most people think they choose their beliefs and values, when nothing could be further from the truth. Like the lumpy blue sweater, they were chosen for you a long time ago.
Your values are mostly a product of your parental and cultural conditioning and likely there is nothing original whatsoever about them. This should matter to you very much, because it’s how you process reality and you currently test many ideas that failed a long time ago. In other words, your worldview isn’t cutting edge, it’s very much out of fashion and like Andy you’re the last one to know. We all face this tragic choice: to hold onto the unproductive familiar or face the unknown of who you truly are without the deeply held, but distorted value. That’s a rock and a hard place.
Do you think serving others is better than serving yourself? In the west, this was a Judeo-Christian idea at least as old as Leviticus 19:18 “love thy neighbor as thyself,” but this was a misinterpretation of a powerful spiritual teaching. The great prophets of the Bible didn’t operate via behavioral control, they were driven by their viscerally experienced connection to Divinity. The esoteric meaning of “love thy neighbor as thyself” means “when you abide with Divinity, you experience that the way in which we’re all the same, resulting in treating others well.”
The prophets of old, however, did not have a reliable method for connecting people with Divinity, nor did most people have the willingness to do rigorous spiritual work (they still don’t), so the teaching was diluted from a spiritual signpost to a behavioral modification edict. The problem is that if you can’t experience Allness, the frequency of reality in which we’re all connected as one, then altruistic behavior is inside a “self versus other” paradigm that dead-ends quickly as it requires one to repress self-interest and control one’s behavior with willpower. The repression of self-interest causes inauthentic giving-to-receive, resentment, disconnection from real emotional needs, guilt, and myriad other problems.
Do you think that “letting go” will reduce stress and lead you to happiness? This kind of transcendence was a popular misinterpretation of the Buddha’s teachings because his esoteric spiritual teachings were too challenging for the masses. The Buddha’s form of enlightenment had nothing to do with happiness, bliss, or maintaining any kind of permanent state, it was about surrendering to a direct experience of radical impermanence which creates a natural transcendence that doesn’t require one to “let go.” Rather, it makes it impossible for a person to hold on in the first place. But because most people don’t have the discipline to do the work to awaken, Buddhism was created as a belief system for those unable to have the real experience.
As with “love thy neighbor as thyself,” the esoteric spiritual meaning was lost in translation to the exoteric form of the religion. The Buddha didn’t teach people to “let go,” he discovered a consciousness that wasn’t attached to anything. But as with Jesus, instead of emulating the consciousness, the masses sought to emulate the downstream behavior, using will, mind, and control to detach. Again, this isn’t a spiritual practice, it’s a manipulation of behavior with the mind masquerading as such.
On this subject, do you think that using your will, mind, and intention to manifest what you want will bring you happiness? This idea was a misinterpretation of Freud’s psychology, which was originally created to heal unconscious wounding, not use conscious control to override it. That was a product of behavioral psychology that was largely built on the work of Ivan Pavlov (yes, the dog and bells guy) who was not a psychologist, but rather a skeptic of the field. Pavlov’s career began in theology, but when he read Darwin he became fascinated with natural science and physiology and reduced the complex human psyche to animalistic instincts and what he called “conditional reflexes.”
At the turn of the 20th century, while Freud and Jung called for in-depth explorations of the unconscious, western-medicine-trained scientists unsurprisingly opted for Pavlov’s far simpler approach: reduce humans to animals. Psychologists John Watson and Edward Thorndike built on Pavlov’s work, believing that objective analysis of the mind was impossible. They focused on directly observable behavior and how to control it, the approach that came to be called “Behaviorism.” In 1924, Watson summarily rejected introspective methods just nine years after Freud asserted that our unconscious ran our lives. Behaviorists saw altering our behavior and the environment as the solution instead of making our unconscious conscious. This control-based orientation toward psychology dominated the field for the first half of the 20th century before humanism rose to prominence in the 1960s.
Humanism was more concerned with individual feelings and sought not to reduce people to their behaviors. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the center of humanism and while its approach didn’t reduce people to animals, it also didn’t provide a clear path to healing. Humanism was based on the ideas that humans are inherently good and that everyone has the potential to find their own answers to their problems, so the role of a therapist is to facilitate that discovery. The pendulum swung from the behaviorist “control yourself and your environment” methodology to the kinder, but just as impotent, “support you to find your own answers” track.
How do we know humanistic psychology was impotent? Because it’s been largely replaced and/or supported by the use of psychotropic pharmaceuticals to shore up what it cannot do. If talk therapy worked, lifetime subscriptions of pills with side effects worse than the “illness” wouldn’t be necessary.
Modern self-empowerment paradigms which dominate the coaching industry and include Scientology, Landmark, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and myriad others are based in a mix of behaviorism and humanism. This is why you have a sense that you can eventually solve your own problems, train yourself willfully to be different, control your environment to change yourself, use your mind to change how you feel, etc. If you’re not religious or spiritual, this is most likely your value system in our society today. That’s your blue sweater, trickled down to you by designers you never met.
Notice that the evolution above completed with Humanism, an appreciation for the whole person, their feelings, and their ability to solve their own problems. That’s a form of subjectivism, which we’ll examine in a moment. First, let’s summarize what we’ve established so far.
If you examine the value system of nearly any human on the planet, you will find a mix of altruism, transcendence, and/or control. These are the three primary ways people in our world seek happiness and they are all well-worn dead-ends of consciousness that you’ve inherited, not chosen. These ideas are not brought to you by the greatest teachings in history, they are brought to you by those who diluted those teachings for the uninformed masses to approximate what real psychospiritual spiritual work delivers. It's like learning to play guitar hero instead of learning to play guitar. Such is the human condition: we want the benefits without doing the difficult work to earn it. Are you falling for it?
These diluted teachings are justified by making good ideas available to more people, but they also serve to provide the diluters power, money, and fame. Rather than challenging the masses to rise to the levels of evolution these great teachers embodied, they lowered the teachings to where the masses already were, continuing the conditioned human tradition of “if at first you don’t succeed, lower your standards.”
This is one important way of understanding the history of consciousness, and there is another to explore. Let’s go one step more meta and look at all religion, philosophy, and spirituality as it fits into either of two categories: objectivism and subjectivism. I’ll cover that in part two of this series.