I have been thinking a lot lately about how an individual defines oneself. How much do words, symbols and ideologies form the identity of the individual human being? I talked a little bit about language and words forming identities in a previous blog post. But now I wish to address cultural and ideological identities more specifically. Its interesting to see that as I wrote this blog entry, it seemingly turned into some sort of life manifesto by the end. It may be a little rambling and disorganized, so read on if you dare.
A few months ago I had come to an important intellectual conclusion which could be summed up in a Facebook status update.
“It is very bad idea to build an identity on the ideas of other people”
I had come to this while writing about how important language is and how it can be misused. One of the worst ways people can misuse language is to use it to define their existence. Our language is by its very nature, cold and logical. The language of logic is all about assertions and contradictions. And so I have the inclining that we get very insecure when our existential bedrock is nothing but abstract logical dictions. A perfect example of this is fundamentalist religion.
The western forms of religion are essentially absolutist in their interpretations of existence. They are very logical in regards to interpreting scripture as the final truth of the universe. Everything else must follow that (holy book x) is true. Just like in any logic equation, you must have at least one given truth(or faith) to figure anything out. In scripture based religion, the entire universe then must fit into perfect order because the ultimate truth behind everything is assumed. Followers of fundamentalist religions will tell you, things which don’t appear to make any sense actually do make sense but we just aren't able to totally understand God's plan. But rest assured everything is for the best.
I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on religion exclusively. I want to demolish all forms of ideology. Fundamentalist religion seems to be the most obviously flawed ideological system that sticks out like a sore thumb. But I believe that all ideological definitions of the self are illusions at their very core. Political ideologies are also very weak and function with these kinds of faith based belief systems. They usually begin with an assumption of the nature of humanity. For example, socialism begins with the belief that humans left to their own devices are naturally bad and therefore need to be controlled. Libertarianism assumes that humans left to their own devices will behave naturally good and therefore need no government to control them.
I want to show you that you don’t need to prove your own existence. For some reason, we are very insecure about our own existence if we don’t have anything that appears external to define it. Here is the most critical flaw of the modern idea of existence. The idea that the self is something different than the world. We feel like the “I” is something that sits behind the eyes that makes decisions and controls the body. Nonetheless “I” is a foreigner in a strange world. For example, look at the various linguistic ways we make this distinction. When we are born we say we are brought into this world. When we refer to the human body, we say we “have” a body. As if the body were something of an object that the “I” can posses. This is an idea that is so totally ingrained into our language and culture that we take it for granted. It appears in religious rhetoric as the “soul”. Even in secular society the idea as the self as something separate from the world, greatly informs the worldview of the modern person.
I think ideologies are phenomena that occur when our ego centered sense of self feels insecure and attempts to prove that it exists
Before I continue, I want to say that these ideas of the self are heavily influenced by a man named Alan Watts. I have been listening to a lot of his lectures regarding the nature of consciousness and what the modern conception of the self is. He was an utterly captivating orator and he has introduced me to whole new ways to think about life. Its amazing to me that some people’s personalities like Watts’ can be so alive in my mind yet they have been dead for decades.
The idea of the self is what we should be focused on here. What am I? What are you? The harder you look into this question, the more vague the self appears to be. If you strip away all constructed ideas of identity such as gender, race and culture, the self appears to be nothing more than moment to moment experience. You are nothing more than the continuation of consciousness of an individual human being. You are not your past. You have access to this person’s memories and you assume the responsibilities and consequences of their past actions, but you should not be defined by them. Even your sense of agency and free will as an individual is illusory. Your moment to moment thoughts you act upon arise seemingly unintentionally out of thin air. Every thought originates at very rudimentary levels of neurochemistry. Did you come up with those thoughts? How could freewill be an actual concept if there is no intentional control of all the brain and body’s functions? Are YOU responsible for the beating of your heart? are YOU digesting the food in your gut? Do you have the freewill not to feel hungry? Where do you draw the line between “You” and your desires?
The funny thing is when you try to control something that comes naturally, it gets tripped up. When you draw a line between “you” and the body’s behaviour it becomes an uncomfortable mess. Just like a microphone held up to it’s own speaker creates a disturbing feedback sound. For example, if you constantly think about your breathing, it becomes disordered. Breathing only works properly if you don’t think about it. In a social situation, If you are constantly reviewing and second guessing what you want to say, you come off as awkward. People who stringently monitor and try to consciously control their social interactions with people, present themselves as unnatural. There is some sort of act going on and they don’t appear to be expressing themselves properly. If they would just let go of the controls and say what comes naturally, their genuine person shines through better.
The idea of the ego seems to be an illusion created by a pattern in the stream of consciousness. We have been constantly reminded since birth, that there is a thinker behind our thoughts. We are unintentionally taught that there is a separate entity of the self that “Thinks our thoughts” and “feels our feelings”. When those are perfectly obvious to be absurd statements. Our language and culture has created a rhythm of thought that creates an image of a separate self. This image is created by our patterned stream of consciousness that goes something like: Thought thought thought THINKER, thought, thought, THINKER. We constantly acknowledge the presence of a being that thinks our thoughts. But I am starting to believe that the default human stream of conscious thought does not require the perceived presence of a thinker to function normally. Altered forms of consciousness achieved through means such as sleep, practices of meditation or psychoactive substances offer windows into a state of being free of an ego. It shows that a reality with a self-other dichotomy is not the default state of being.
We know that any pattern when repeated enough, fades into the background and taken for granted. This happens in everything we sense. We don’t feel our clothes on our body we wear all day. We only notice it when we take our clothes off. We don’t notice how bad our house smells if we live in it all day. We will notice the smell only if we leave the house for a while and come back. We only notice a difference when the pattern is interrupted. So in this way, our fundamental first premise of reality is based on the simple and constantly repeated thought pattern of self and other.
Hey Scott, what the hell does this philosophical bullshit have to do with ideology?
What I’m trying to say is that the “I”, the “self”, the “me” or the “ego” is an illusion plain and simple. I’m also trying to say that ideological labels such as: Christian, Atheist, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, American, Canadian, Vegan or Feminist are expressions of the ego trying to define it’s existence. Since our culture is so insistent on the concept of the ego as the thing that is YOU. We try to find our true existential identities in ideologies and culture. We think of ideologies as fundamental truths that exist outside of ourselves. If I use an ideological label such as “I am a child of God”. On some level, I am saying “my ego exists”. “I exist because of a relation to the other”.
I’m not saying that we should now strive to destroy our current egocentric thought pattern paradigm, but we should just begin to acknowledge this as just one of many possible states of existence. It’s not the default state of humanity, but just one possible way that we can exist. This way we can take one step back and look at the definitions of ourselves, once thought to be taken for granted.
Our conformist behaviour inside our culture are also attempts for ego expression. The universal goal to be “successful” in our culture is one of these cultural ideals taken for granted. But success is only a relative term in our culture. You can only be measurably successful in relation to others.
I want to make a small example of this with a experience I had. Not too long ago I encountered a man at a friend’s BBQ in Medicine Hat. He seemed like a nearly middle age guy, recently married and with a very time demanding oil field job We got to talking about positives and negatives of the cities we both live in. He remarked that he would like Lethbridge as a city if not for “the certain ethnic group that refuses to work for a living and begs for money. Get a job.”
What is very interesting to me is to compare his own apparent position in the culture and his attitude toward outsiders. I didn't know the man at all, but we had barely been talking for more than 5 minutes and he already made a very negative racist remark about people who haven’t conformed to the racial majority culture. You really couldn't find a better example of an expression of insecurity in culture. From what I gathered from our brief meeting, this guy has really bought into the cultural game. And he takes the game very seriously. This is why he hates those who do not pursue the same cultural goals as he does. It shows him a possibility that there are meaningful ways of existence that are different than his own. Maybe he has spent all the best years of his life trying for a state of illusory happiness without substance. He spent his years trying for what culture has told him what he should want instead of trying for what he truly wants.
I believe that a culture that is hostile to outsiders shows an insecurity in the cultural ideal. From my experience growing up in a small town, the cultural ideal in Alberta is to find a high paying job in a booming labour industry like the oilpatch. You are defined in this culture by how much money you can make and how many big toys you can collect. The actual work involved in the career is very time consuming and labour intensive. But ultimately the work done doesn't mean all that much to the person doing it. So you spent two weeks straight, welding pieces of a big-ass pipeline together, great. What matters is the amount of money made doing all that work. You did all that work so you could add another vertical foot to your pickup truck. yeah budday.
Those who decide to opt out from the local culture game are hated because of the insecurity of the culture norms. Granted, my culture is much more lenient towards outsiders than lets say Saudi Arabia, but you get the picture.
I believe that in order to have a healthy and open understanding of the universe, you can’t be attached to any form of limiting ideology. Ideologies are only stepping stones to higher understandings of the universe. Take the good ideas from an ideology and move on. Use them as intellectual scaffolding on which to build better ideas. If you find a better idea, discard the old one. Instead of using ideas to create an identity, use them as a blueprint of reality. That blueprint can help you move around the social, spiritual, scientific and physical world more easily.
Neo: “I have these memories from my entire life, but… none of them really happened. What does that mean?”
Trinity: “That the Matrix cannot tell you who you are.”
The Matrix, 1999
No one can tell you who you are. No group of people can tell you who you are. No amount of old scripture can be the ultimate truth of your universe. Don’t attach yourself to a culture that wants to turn you into an anonymous consumer. Don’t give your intellect up to religions that only degrade and dehumanize you. Don’t wrap yourself in cultural sentimentality because it is comfortable and familiar. I believe life should be about constantly pursuing new experiences. I believe it is our mission as apertures of the conscious universe to write what has never been written. To draw what has never been drawn. To invent what has never been conceived of. Meet new people and form unique relationships with them. Try not to mold those relationships into pre-determined roles. Experience new things. Travel to new and strange places. Use those experiences to create your own personality. Make that personality unashamedly weird and unique. Don’t define yourself as a caste that culture has laid down before. You’re not doing the human enterprise much good by plunking yourself down into the most typically average role . Don’t take the safe route and buy a mortgage with your perfect green lawn and picket fence like its the 1950s. Where is the creativity in climbing the corporate ladder to buy the new mercedes and a cookie cutter suburban house? What kind of interesting story will your life be, if you don’t try to pave a brand new path? Culture, religion, sentimentality and ideology will only hold you back from the true human experience.