Friday, January 14, 2011

Becoming Conscious of Our Agreement Fields

A given society isn't a collection of monuments, an ideology or even the historic records it produces. A society is a living thing, and what comprises it are the people who self-identify with it by embracing a set of beliefs that are specific to that society. That collection of shared beliefs make up a vast agreement field. Take away the agreement field that binds a society together, and it either reorganizes or collapses. We find evidence of that fact throughout history: societies have risen, established powerful agreement fields, and then disappeared abruptly once the agreement field no longer reflected the truth of who the people knew themselves to be.

Consider feudal Europe. For centuries those who lived and died there unconsciously accepted the shared belief that some of them were born to be royal and others were born to be peasants. That social structure, with all its myriad rules and complexities, made up an enormous part of their shared agreement field. Hardly anyone challenged the system; peasants grew up knowing they'd likely be poor their entire lives and that their function was to serve the royal class - of which they could never, ever become a part. Then suddenly, during a short spasm of revolution that began in the late 18th century, a majority of people all over Europe chose to "opt out" of their shared agreement fields. They guillotined the French aristocracy (upending once and for all the notion of subservience). They also murdered the Russian royals and stripped the surviving European monarchs of any real power. Americans too decided to reject their agreement field with England, upending the old colonial relationship to establish a brand new field of agreement we now know as "democracy." What drove that shift, as we well know, was a massive shift in human consciousness. A collective awareness rose among people that the feudal system was inherently wrong because it didn't fairly honor and nurture the majority of those born into it. That new conviction, which flooded the hearts of the suffering peasants with its deeper truth, replaced their simple, previously unexamined belief - that they were born peasants and were destined to die peasants - that had once been the social norm.

Every agreement field - and almost all the beliefs it contains - operates mainly on a subconscious (unexamined) level, because it's been programmed since birth into our collective consciousness. Unexamined though such agreement fields may be, they define every society and establish the rules under which the citizens agree to conduct themselves - for all their lives.

Beyond our primary social agreement field there exist numerous smaller, overlapping fields of agreement based on culture, political beliefs, family histories, economic systems, religions, racial backgrounds and personal life experiences. These fields are often out of harmony with one another, or with the larger societal agreement field. Wherever they come into conflict is where we find most of the suffering in our world. One group of individuals may identify with a white supremacist field of agreement, while another might embrace an agreement field of African-American racial oppression under the despotic rule of the white man. Place these two agreement fields side by side and violence might well erupt.

When specific beliefs from two powerful fields are in conflict, it places individuals who identify with both fields in a difficult position. They often feel they must choose one field over the other (i.e.: my Christian beliefs are more important to me than my national beliefs). They then try to change the beliefs in the one field so they more closely match the beliefs in the field toward which they feel a stronger affinity. In essence, by "converting" the beliefs that are part of the secular field of agreement to match their Christian set of beliefs, they hope to end the cognitive dissonance and/or alienation they feel. The trouble is, the very act of attempting to forcibly convert the larger secular agreement field to Christianity triggers cognitive dissonance in those who haven't signed on for the Christian field of agreement, and who aren't interested in having that become a litmus test for being a "good" U.S. citizen.

When we examine the cognitive dissonance we sometimes feel when the fields of agreement we self-identify with are in direct conflict, we really have two choices, not one. Obviously, if they're in direct conflict, one of the beliefs has got to be wrong. Rather than simply and uncritically choose which agreement field we support and which we must reject or change to be happy, our wisest move is to step outside BOTH agreement fields for a time and examine the specific belief that is causing us the problem. An uncritical or fear-based mind tends to lurch blindly toward the agreement field that has impressed itself most deeply on the psyche through years of conditioned programming, but IS that the best reason for us to embrace a belief? By taking the time to deeply examine what it is we truly believe, we empower ourselves to discover our own highest truth.

The trouble with all these longstanding agreement fields that overlap and coincide to form a complex human society is that they came into existence long before most of us were born. We weren't offered much in the way of opportunity to contribute our truths to them, and often were taught that just questioning them was enough to cause us to be rejected by the others who were in the agreement field. For the main part we were also indoctrinated into these agreement fields before we were old enough to think for ourselves, which makes it very hard for us to question what we believe.

There's a heaviness that seems to develop over time in every society, and America is feeling it now. It results from the collective weightiness of the conflicts from all the longstanding agreement fields we've put into place. Many of those agreement fields are relics of bygone eras, but the very act of letting them go seems terrifying to those who self-identify with them. Who am I, we wonder, if not the sum total of all my agreement fields?

As we ask ourselves that question, what we discover is that as we begin to release our mental grip on all our various agreement fields, what emerges is something that is not lessened by our lessening of attachments, but expanded beyond measure. Our attachments to our unconscious agreement fields limit our capacity to engage with each other - to engage life - on the broadest possible level where we all can agree: that we ARE life, having a shared (albeit temporary) bodily experience. All the rest of it - mother, Christian, daughter, employee, artist, wife, friend, middle class, American - are beliefs about who we are, distinctions we make that bring color and passion and direction to our lives...but they're not the truth. Today I may be a wife; tomorrow I may be a widow. That being the case, how helpful is it for me to attach to tightly to the notion that I am wife? Why not just settle for loving where I am, as I am, and being grateful for what I have while I still have it?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Our Society Shapes Us All, And We Shape It

The baby boomer generation - often derided as the most greedy, narcissistic group of individuals this country has ever seen - didn't arise in a vacuum, and it didn't raise itself. Those of us born between 1947 and 1966 arrived on the scene into a preexisting social system which taught us from early childhood that materialism was exceptionally good.

We were inundated with TV ads - the first generation to experience commercials commingled with Saturday morning cartoons - that urged us to acquire the latest and greatest toys. Cereals and fast foods were packaged with our films and TV shows, which in turn bombarded us with images of the "good" life. We were raised on Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Lassie and Dick Van Dyke. People on those programs lived in single family homes with nice yards in mainly peaceful suburbia. The nicest families had two cars in every driveway, a couple of kids and amazingly well trained pets - and it was all fenced in with white picket. The "bad" life was represented as an inevitable descent into drugs and crime, inner city poverty, homelessness, joblessness and an endless cycle of welfare - all of which stemmed from laziness and/or the lack of moral fiber.

Our religions taught us that we were inherently sinful, and that the path to salvation was to obey authority. To question the Church's teachings meant you'd been seduced by Satan. Hell - eternal suffering and torment - was the punishment that awaited us if we failed to practice blind faith.

In our factory style schools we responded like robots to the commands of bells. Our success was determined by how much better we performed on tests than our peers. The sports we were encouraged to play required us to "beat" others. Losing was labeled as failure, and we learned our worth was determined by how well we measured up against others. Our schools taught us America was the best nation in the world, and that other nations either wanted to be just like us or were so jealous they hated us for our freedom.

Sexuality became the weapon advertisers directed at us when we entered our adolescent and young adult years. If we wanted to get laid we needed a Porsche, or at the very least a BMW. Meanwhile, the fashion magazines urged us to replace our wardrobes every year or risk being labeled frumpy; or worse - unable to afford to keep pace with the ever-changing standards of feminine beauty. The health industry sprang up and targeted us as we hit our early thirties, selling us beauty products, exercise equipment, gym memberships and fad diets, shaming us if we failed to conform to their impossible standards of beauty. For men, that meant packing washboard abs even after sitting eight hours behind a desk. For women it meant being heroin chic thin while trying to hold down a job, care for the children and manage to run a home.

When we entered the workforce we were discouraged from choosing careers that spoke to our artistic and heartfelt passions because we weren't likely to become financially successful, which we learned was the most important factor when selecting a career. We were taught to sell our time and energy to the highest bidder. Our companies then taught us it didn't matter if we offered the world the best product or service; what mattered was that it generated a profit. We discovered quickly that people were expendable (and exploitable) in the corporate quest for profits, as was good service, product quality, the environment, our time with our families and our sense of personal accomplishment.

We were taught by our government to fear the alien other, and to battle any resistance to the global spread of capitalism by using our superior military might. Those who didn't like our way of life were labeled ignorant heathens or godless doers of evil, and we were taught to perceive them as mortal enemies. We learned we needed to "duck and cover" against the omnipresent threat of nuclear war.

Now that we baby boomers are collectively aging, we're being informed that aging is no longer a process but a disease. It's incurable, but we're being urged to do all we can to treat the symptoms. We're supposed to diet and dye, lift and lyposuck, nip and tuck, take hormones and do yoga to hide the embarrassing truth of our aging from the world.

We are the first generational output of the late industrial information age. We were guinea pigs for the "great consumer society" that began in the 1950's, when money from our post WWII reconstruction of the ruined rest of the world flooded our culture and funded a huge middle class that grew temporarily fat and happy on all that global rebuilding. Our sheer numbers made us the perfect target for corporate consumer enterprise. Frankly, it's a miracle any of us still value and practice compassion, generosity, love, kindness and peacefulness; that we do only proves that the human spirit can rise above societal programming.

The American middle class is dying as the rest of the world resurrects. We're observing the reassertion of humanity's ancient have/have-not division around the world. We've been playing this win/lose social game for many thousands of years, and it requires many more losers than winners for it to continue to work. The American dream we were promised as children has become a nightmare of over-consumption, excessive growth, resource depletion, environmental degradation and personal stress to the point most people need medication (or alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs) to stagger through their days. Because we've been taught we should be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and that any personal failure to thrive is purely our own fault, we've been cowed into surrender to our own fates. Like a herd of cattle being driven to its own slaughter, we've blindly accepted that we're here to serve the for-profit motives of our corporations - even if it kills us all. It doesn't occur to us to notice that in reality we are those corporations, and that perhaps the solution to our many ills is to insist they serve the needs of all the life forms on Earth instead.

It's a painful process to consciously examine and purposefully eliminate the countless hours of toxic programming each of us has received. Human consciousness is like a vast, shared river out of which we all must drink. We've fouled that river the way we've fouled our oceans, air and lands. Before we can even begin to clean it up we must first stop dumping pollution into those waters. Knowing that, as the first generation of adults to have arisen under the grand consumer social experiment, it's now incumbent upon each of us to ask ourselves what toxins we're still pouring into the river. What are we contributing to the collective consciousness, and what might its impact be on unformed minds? What behaviors and ideologies are we passing along to our children, our neighbors, our world? Nobody grows up in a vacuum, as the tragic events of last week have so painfully reminded us. We are our brother's keeper - and teacher, and friend and role model - and we each bear partial responsibility for all events that occur in our shared world. It's time we stopped pretending that what we do individually doesn't matter.

Let's stop telling ourselves that one person can't possibly make a difference in this world. The time is now for each of us to peer deeply inside of ourselves and dredge up the best of what we're capable of becoming. To then gift that to the rest of the world in gratitude for the precious gift of life that we've received is why we're here.

The future of life itself may depend on it.