Okay, right off the bat: The choice of title was lofty. I can’t tell you how to go beyond your conditioning, because to completely do so is probably impossible. Whether we identify with or rebel against our roots, those roots are what influenced our earliest conception of reality and will forever be a part of us.
Furthermore, to believe with conviction that one has transcended their conditioning—as if it’s some fixed point you can surpass with enough wisdom and vigilance—is to condemn oneself to introspective stagnation. If you ever think you’re a finished product and that you’ve got nothing more to learn about yourself, you’ll stop looking as closely for undiscovered backwoods [or back alleys, if that’s more your schtick] in your psyche, and stop questioning your beliefs and actions. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt; you’ll take your whole lifetime to figure out.
We are each composites of our subjective experiences, after all. There is no “neutral” upbringing; none of us were raised in a cultural vacuum. The opportunity cost is every other possible time, place, body and family we could’ve been born into and shaped by instead.
So complete objectivity and self-awareness may not be a possible limit for anyone to breach. Does that mean the attempt is useless? Absolutely not. It’s all about the journey. As poet Robert Browning wrote:
A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
I’d always regarded myself as a pretty free-thinking individual—it wasn’t until I was completely removed from everything I knew that I realized how much my social identity had shaped me, and how my environment molded my incontrovertible [or so I thought at the time] convictions about the world. Learning for the first time that many of my beliefs about the world and myself were subjective—malleable and optional—opened me up both to a newfound spectrum of possibility, and a newfound humility, in navigating the world. Free-thinking isn’t a personality trait—it’s a never-ending process.
So here it is: as non-partisan and universal a take on methodical introspection and prescribed self-experimentation as this little girl can muster, divided into six parts, none of which require you to spend money, share my views of the world, or reinvent your lifestyle.
The only testimony for these tips I can give is my own—in recent years I’ve developed a healthier relationship with myself—both forgiving and stern, have dispelled much of the formless anger I used to cling to when my life didn’t feel quite right, am prescribing myself a completely customized life rather than one shaped by the norms of my time, and am finally hopeful of managing the depression I’ve long denied being enslaved by.
1. DECONSTRUCT YOUR VALUES
First, some analysis. This may seem tedious or annoying, but it’s worth it. Consider:
- Topical issues you feel strongly about one way or another, be it venture capitalism, religion, astrology, veganism, manners, psychiatry, social media, patriotism, parenting, push-up bras, censorship, party drugs, human nature, social responsibility…whatever gets you somehow
- People and groups that you harbor strong feelings toward, from disgust to hopeless fascination
- “Givens”—principles you think are self-evident, or universal to existence, reality, society, morality, rather than matters of opinion
- Things that gross you out, annoy you, or make you uncomfortable on a basic, even irrational level: open-mouthed chewing, polyamory, spiders, girls with armpit hair, people who speak in Ebonics—anything that offends or embarrasses you
Dig down to the roots of your beliefs. Ask yourself why and why not—repeatedly. Ask where your attitudes first came from—you weren’t born with them. Take nothing for granted and explain yourself to a blank slate. Note any resistance or frustration on your part, and ask where it’s coming from.
Play devil’s advocate and antagonize your views with an equal and opposite force. Push yourself to flesh out perspectives you would normally find reprehensible. Remember that arguing a side in the privacy of your own mind doesn’t mean you have to agree with it at the end of the day—no matter how well you manage to argue it.
Consider which of your beliefs have changed over time, and what prompted the change. Even more so, consider which of your beliefs have stayed consistent—question those hardest. Wikipedia defines confirmation bias as the tendency of people to “favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses”—to the extent of blocking out opposing evidence. Try to catch yourself rationalizing your way out of confronting emotional or conditioned reactions, answering difficult questions, or admitting a gap in your knowledge or logic. Notice when your arguments sound shaky or extreme. Be ruthless and thorough. Deliberately search for cognitive dissonance, and keep asking why like a two-year-old until your head explodes.
2. REPROGRAM YOUR INFLUENCES
We all have a tendency to look at media and news sources that confirm our own attitudes—so make a conscious effort to diversify what information you’re exposed to, even if it frustrates you at first.
This doesn’t have to be dramatic—just small substitutions here and there.
- If you read Richard Dawkins, follow up with some of C.S. Lewis’ short theological writings [he was regarded as a “skeptical Christian”]
- Browse news articles and podcasts with a different political slant than your own, or ones from networks in other countries
- Explore philosophical schools of thought—even if it’s just on Wikipedia
- Explore history and anthropology to see how value systems have changed over time and place—even if it just means watching the odd documentary or TV show on science or culture when you’re stuck home with a cold [my most recent sick-in-bed favorite was Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown]
In America, we’re often plagued with an assumption that we already know enough about what the rest of the world is like and won’t benefit from further investigation, caricaturizing other cultures with what little we do know, or think we know, about them. Assume ignorance on your part; be a sponge.
Look at how others conceptualize or value things like success, sexuality, philanthropy, natural laws and science, and how the citizens of other developed countries feel about their social and political systems—not just at how you feel about them. Remember that you can be receptive to things, and even accept them, without liking them. If you previously had no interest in such things, this may be a forced effort at first—but over time you may develop more curiosity about history, anthropology, political theory, science, pop culture, mysticism, or philosophy.
3. CONNECT WITH THE ALIENS
It’s natural to put certain walls up against people we don’t relate to, to stereotype and dismiss them as dumb or crazy rather than investing our candor: in an era where we come in contact with tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in a lifetime, compartmentalizing people is valuable, and helps us make educated guesses in new situations to avoid wasting time or starting conflicts.
However, with exposure to so many people, and with the increasingly flexible and isolated lifestyles afforded by modern life [frequent career changes, working from home, urban living, and—of course—escaping to the Internet], it’s become much easier to avoid anyone who irritates or confuses us, and to seek out only those who will validate our opinions with their agreement, at the risk of potentially harmful stubbornness.
Wordspy.com defines cyberbalkanization as “the division of the Internet into narrowly focused groups of like-minded individuals who dislike or have little patience for outsiders.”
We do this in person, too—tuning out or even dehumanizing those we perceive as belonging to a stereotype we find alienating: rednecks, bros, New Agers…again, this sort of filter can keep our interactions efficient, even safe.
But look, if all you do is preach to the choir, you’re condemning yourself to intellectual atrophication. How lazy is it to discuss one’s beliefs only with those predisposed to agree? It’s a cushion.
In every camp, there are extremists—and they’re often the loudest members. Just because someone is an extremist or bad at defending their beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean the belief itself is invalid— just as the ability to logically and persuasively present a case doesn’t mean it’s right [ask any Speech and Debate kid]. Ability to argue is a reflection of an individual.
Keep in mind that, within that same camp, there are probably also reasonable people who are probably not that different from you.
Try and find some of them. If you can find people with radically different backgrounds, lifestyles and values whom you can respect, or even relate to, they can challenge you to think and grow in ways your more like-minded friends might never be able to. Having an open discourse with someone completely unlike ourselves—or holding radically different viewpoints—can expose us to our shadow aspects [a la Jungian psychology: the parts of ourselves that we, ourselves, find hardest to see, instead projecting them onto others] and prejudices we didn’t realize we had.
And in general, make a conscious effort to consider what is being said, separately from who’s saying it. Discipline yourself to judge ideas on their own merit—regardless of whether they came from a friend, your mother, an co-worker you can’t stand, someone you look up to, a guy in a Hugo Boss suit, or a bum with “Stupid” tattooed on his forehead [hey, I’ve met him].
4. UNPLUG YOURSELF
You don’t have to meditate or become a hermit, but cultivate periods of passive observation and silence.
- If you commute, turn off your phone or radio and leave your book at home next time. Even better, do this on your next long stint in a car, bus, or airplane—sit with yourself for a couple hours of more
- Ditch the GPS and try to find new places the old-fashioned way, paying closer attention to your surroundings
- Sans-headphones and cell phone, make time to wander aimlessly around familiar neighborhoods, or a part of town you’ve never bothered to walk through. It doesn’t need to be anywhere exciting—the key here isn’t excitement, but observational solitude. Make no plans or expectations, but oblige any whims and see where they take you
Instead of creating your own reality, which we are all doing constantly, give yourself time to be receptive—to observe the world around you, as well as your thoughts and reactions to it. Adapt to what’s around you, instead of forcing what’s around you to adapt to you.
5. GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
Go somewhere that freaks you out—even if it’s just the other side of town, or some local establishment you never would’ve dreamed of visiting. Do something that freaks you out—even if it’s just dressing differently or not wearing makeup. Casually reach out to that old friend you’ve thought about lately, even if it feels socially awkward or you’re not sure what to say.
Try a few things, by yourself, that are completely alien and somewhat uncomfortable to you, whether that means exploring soap-making, ecstatic dance, ghost towns, churches, ecovillages, bookstores or hiking trails. If something makes you cringe—but doesn’t completely go against your principles or put your life at risk—and you can sample it in a day, do it.
When you can, plan to go on a trip somewhere new—not necessarily far, or for long, just somewhere unfamiliar—and don’t cushion yourself with plans or money. Allot a small budget—just enough to keep you safe and get you home—but won’t allow you to default to the same old hotel rooms, local friends or relatives, restaurants, or shopping. Be a participant, rather than a tourist. Open yourself up to impulse and coincidence—with no plans in the way, you won’t have any reason to decline good opportunities as they come up.
6. INTERROGATIVE INTROSPECTION
This might be the hardest part—once we become too comfortable seeing ourselves in a certain light, as being this-or-that sort of person, we’re more prone to overlooking evidence to the contrary, which in turn makes us prone to blind spots in our self-perception [circling back once again to confirmation bias and the shadow aspect of Jungian psychology]. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “to define is to limit.”
The 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is a great example of this: a couple, believing themselves to be very progressive San Franciscans, learn their daughter’s fiancé is black [but otherwise completely perfect by their standards]—and are confronted with racial prejudices they didn’t even realize they were harboring [and so on].
Think of what kind of person you are—according to yourself. How do you define yourself—by your social identity, interests, or personality traits? Do you live up to your own standards? How do you think you come across to others? If you met yourself, what would you think? Is there anything about yourself that you don’t like—and, if so, why not? Can you change it? Should you? If there are traits you can’t stand about other people—see if you can find them in yourself, if you look hard. Are there lies you tell yourself, things you gloss over?
What do you want most in life? Do you have those things? If so, are you happy? If not, can you do anything about it? Whatever you seek in your own life—the pursuit of knowledge, discipline, pleasure, wealth, love, enlightenment, influence, or service, ask yourself why you seek it. What do you stand to gain by attaining it—and what would come next, if you did? If you believe in seeking truth over happiness [or vice versa]—ask why that is, and whether it makes you a better, happier person by your own definition.
While I’m not encouraging self-deception, it can be argued that Virtue and Meaning are subjective and, therefore, personal choices. If your life doesn’t feel quite right, maybe you’re holding onto a paradigm or value system that isn’t helping you. Maybe you don’t need or want what you think you do—maybe you once did, but don’t anymore. Maybe disenfranchisement, even depression, are partially symptoms to a larger core issue.
The point of all this isn’t necessarily to change you in some particular way—or even at all. The trick is to leave no stone unturned, to push your imagination and critical thinking as far as they’ll go, to make no unexamined assumptions about who we are, or take for granted our beliefs of life’s workings. Our minds, our worlds, are inherently subjective. After all, how many times have you looked back on something you’d done in the past and thought, “Damn, I didn’t know anything back then”?
ABOUT THE WRITER
A committed bonne vivante bearing scatological proclivities, Bumpkin Wolfgang quit a cushy office job in favor of running off to the mountains, where she spent six months building trails and digging cat holes at 13,000 feet. The experience irretrievably addled her brains, and she’s since been on an unstructured pilgrimage to nowhere in particular, which has led her to work as a ski instructor, massage therapist, freelance model, golf cart mechanic, and so on. She believes in candor, experimentation, and catharsis, and generally enjoys this whole Being Alive Thing. Her table manners border on obscene. You can reach Bumpkin via email [firstname.lastname@example.org] or peruse her blog [http://debonairdirtbag.blogspot.com].
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