A critical examination of our general and particular mental programming is the natural outcome of realizing that the personal, interpersonal, and intertribal disorder this programming generates is harmful to all human organisms (and countless other creatures), so much so that its untrammeled continuity poses an existential threat to life on Earth. It is not crazy to suggest that a suspension of the culturally determined boundaries and rules of thought and behavior is in high order; it sure is not advocacy for primitivism or amnesia. Even if only temporary, such suspension constitutes the only way to allow for a fresh and incisive look at why humanity has become so culturally divided and psychologically atomized, and why we continue to think it is normal to live and die in such unreasonable isolation and conflict.
A couple of critical and closely related clarifications are necessary to see this argument through to its mark. The first one has to do with the nature and role of experience in the human mind, and the second, with the need to discern what are the positive and negative consequences of the mental record left by experience.
The presence in our minds of our evolution as a species and our subsequent historical development cannot be changed or easily transcended. It is factual, and personal thought can never gain direct access and control the mechanical, physical and chemical operation of the brain. We are very much stuck with who we think and feel we are for the simple reason that, long ago, the entire species inadvertently opted to tie its sense of existence to memory, and to project this conceit onto the future through thought, will, and desire. Our ancestors could not see that in doing they were gradually cutting themselves off from the totality of life and from each other, and that this nearly complete mental encapsulation would have terrible consequences, along with some very good ones.
This examination of reality begins, then, by accepting the physiological presence of the past within us, and continues by suggesting that this presence, both positive and negative, in what we know, think, and desire individually and collectively is by the most part unrelated to the actual (not mental) reality of existence itself. The mental maps that proliferate in the human brai/mind are never the actual territory of life.
Since we experience existence ensconced within particular silos of memory and cognition, change for us is only a projection of the record of previous cultural and personal experience (knowledge), and therefore never more than a relatively small modification, additive or subtractive, to the accumulated past. The mental trace left by experience differs from person to person, and it changes somewhat over time, but what remains constant is its determination of the present and the future of psychological and cultural reality.
Awareness of the steady insufficiency of change within the realm of mental/cultural programming is rare because the general system of tribal and self-centered thought does whatever is necessary to impede a revolution in consciousness it could not survive. However, difficult as it is, the realization of this built-in incapacity is not impossible, and when it does comes about it does so by revealing how we came to be this way and, more importantly, what is still blocking us, personally and collectively, from going beyond recalcitrant mental muddles and behavioral dead ends.
A fundamental question poses itself as soon as one becomes seriously interested in critically examining the social and psychological reality we take to be life. Is the faulty, fragmented, and conflictive progression of tribal- and self-centered being and thinking, all there is to human nature and our mysterious presence in the universe?
Only complete attention to the character of any problem can make its solution (if at all probable) apparent. The same is true in this critical case. An accurate and thorough perception of the human condition as expressed by our current mental, social, and ecological circumstances, immediately points to the cultural and psychological determinants that are blinding and crippling the human mind. Put the other way around, the problem of being human cannot be correctly approached, let alone solved, if any particular manifestation of recorded and projected experience is still marring the acuity of perception, thought, and action of a healthy organism. Without freedom from the trace left by a splintered and conflictive past (both personal and collective), a radically different and simply good mode of human existence will never come into being. This liberation implies, not yet another stage in a process of gradual change, but a radical break in continuity. More clearly said, the end of one’s particular contribution to a present and a future reality of cultural and psychological separation riddled by chronic afflictions.
Please note the negative character of freedom from separation. The very nature of the problem of mental conditioning and fragmentation by experience calls for the immediate rejection of any positive projection issued by the same accumulation of stale failures and glories and their equally rancid projections. The self-centered and self-sustaining process of thought cannot possibly improve or transcend itself by dipping again and again into the same storehouse of tribal and self-centered knowledge, so the solution must involve the exposure of this barren process and its termination. The movement of the known projecting itself onto a “better” pre-conceived future (a more developed self enjoying improved material and social circumstances) is precisely the way in which the mind determined by experience has sustained itself since time immemorial. Strange as it may seem at first, what is so urgently necessary is not a more adequate positive goal and improved methods for its realization, but the irreversible cancellation of the entire project of self-fulfillment. The steady dysfunctionality of the known and desirable must simply yield to the unknown (in those areas in which knowledge is the central factor of social fragmentation and psychological isolation).
The pervasive and chronic miseries we suffer are only symptoms that when carefully examined point to a much deeper malady: a general mindset that generates personal identities, each suffused with superficially different and exclusive knowledge, and all bent on prolonging themselves through what they separately and contradictorily think is real and desirable.
Any serious challenge to this mostly unacknowledged general mindset triggers a reaction of self-defense based on a predetermined and automatic perception of such criticism as not founded on reality, and therefore as possibly deranged and dangerous. The function of this alarmed reaction is, evidently, to drive attention back to the presumed safety of what we each “one” knows as the reality of “my” people and “myself” —the past, the present, and the future of “my” familiar mental bunker.
(The next installment of this series of brief essays will explore more deeply how the isolation of the mind by self-centered knowledge distorts perception and constricts thought, thus rendering impossible the advent of just and peaceful relationship among human beings.)
The second major clarification necessary to advance our query here is that not all forms of cultural conditioning of the individual mind are necessarily deleterious and dangerous. It all depends on the character and intent of what has entered memory, how and why it got there, and what effect it has had on the thinking process and the behavior of particular groups and individuals, and the species as a whole. For example, it is natural and benign for any given population to respond to its fundamental needs through a growing diversification of the work performed by its members. The need for functional specialization makes possible the development of different types of knowledge, increasingly sophisticated levels of social collaboration, and the capacity to promptly find solutions to problems that may be negatively affecting the group as a whole.
At the level of the individual organism, the accumulation and projection of relatively objective knowledge does not necessarily contribute to the formation of an egotistical, insecure, and overly ambitious entity at the core of the mind. Consequently, this form of mental conditioning is not necessarily hostile to individuals living in other groups and displaying similar, or entirely different forms of culturally sponsored functional specialization.
The form of cultural conditioning that is far from natural and benign comes in the form of multiple and contradictory ideologies, both secular and religious, uniformly brainwashing generation upon generation of different human populations. These ideologies necessarily create, protect, and sustain a cultural/personal entity that is greatly self-absorbed and driven, and therefore also indifferent (if not openly hostile) to the wellbeing and ultimate fate of other populations and other individuals identified with, and blinded by their own forms of self-righteous tribalism and sectarianism.
When the capacity to create, internalize and project knowledge opts to extend beyond the satisfaction of the fundamental need for nourishment and physical security of the physical organism, it is not because it has completed its primary task. It is rather because an increasingly individuated consciousness has arisen demanding special attention to its particular material and psychological concerns and the defense and expansion of the sub-groups to which it belongs.
The ever-increasing cultural diversification and fragmentation of society is thus closely mirrored by the individual psyche as it closes in on itself and splits into two parts: a managerial, “thinking” center (“me”) and a mental periphery presumably willing to comply with the desires of its domineering boss. The intensely self-reflective quality assumed by the mind isolates the emerging person, and this isolation generates, in turn, an intense demand for psychological security that only acute dependence on tribal and sub-tribal sanctuaries can satisfy. Cultural identification provides the vulnerable nascent persona with the certainty, pleasure, and self-fulfillment it desperately wants.
In the “right” social conditions, the increasingly personalized human consciousness is able to attain considerable intellectual capacity that, as already mentioned, is often increasingly dedicated to serving the needs and desires of particular sectors of any given population. Once firmly established, these privileged sectors and individuals develop an insatiable hunger for material and psychological security that can only be satisfied by attaining nearly absolute superiority —”spiritual,” political, economic, and military power— over “inferior” sectors of their own society and perhaps over “alien” societies as well.
The original human tribe became more and more splintered and stratified along hierarchical cultural and economic lines as stronger, and more knowledgeable individuals organized themselves in economic and cultural sub-groups that excluded common folk (and foreigners) whose presumed ignorance and labor they exploited without mercy. Brute force acquired extraordinary sophistication by learning to serve its particular interests through the cunning assumption of (dubious) representative authority over the general secular and religious ideologies and methods that their inferiors had to adopt if they wanted to merely exist (physically and psychologically) and pass this level of existence to their descendants. Early on this pattern of dominance-dependence became general and deeply embedded in the particular mind, even though it invariably leads to chronic social instability and revolutionary violence that, when successful in its overthrow of a dominant group or class, usually does no better than reiterate the same pattern with its attendant injustice, violence, and suffering.
All in all, and in whatever situation it may find itself, the self-centered and conditioned human being depends on its cultural groups of reference for its survival, its identity, and whatever measure of security, pleasure, and power it may manage to get today, and tomorrow. Conversely, the general culture of any population depends on the memory, cogitation, and behavior of its members, for its own identity and perdurability.
The society and the psyche conditioned by the experience and learning that culture affords, are not different from one another. The sense of relative independence claimed by the individual stems from the fact that, to some degree or another, all forms of human culture foster the illusion of a separate and autonomous personal existence.