Our Context in the First Dimension
At the heart of our movement are two transformations, one personal and the other global. The two are intimately related: in order to bring about any fundamental change in the external world, a shift in the way we think and feel is needed. In other words, we must transform ourselves. Our movement for an alternative future will not succeed without a commitment to personal transformation.
To begin this transformation, we must acknowledge that we are all born into a context. Each one of us is the product of many forces, circumstances and events over which we have little control, as follows:
1. Pre-Birth Conditions
This is the fundamental nature that we are born with, whether by genetic heritage or sheer coincidence. Every parent knows that each child is different in temperament, and this is apparent even when children are infants. Babies often seem to be born with certain behavioural tendencies, such that a part of their personality is already determined.
2. Biological Necessity
Much of our behaviour is dictated by our natural desire for the physical prerequisites of life, such as the need for shelter, food, water, safety, and reproduction. This category also includes psychological necessities, such as physical connection, love, recognition, even gossip, which are unique to the human species. That physical connection to our kin is important, for example, is borne out by studies showing that children who were never held by their parents develop differently than those who were.
3. Evolutionary Heritage
This is a set of traits that we share with all other members of the human species. It is the result of millennia of human evolution, and is heavily shaped by the long periods of history spent as primitive hunters and gatherers exposed to the dangers and uncertainties of life in the wild, and organised in small, kinship-based clans. Conditions of extreme scarcity forced us to see relationships in binary terms: friend-enemy, individual-group, self-other, us-them. Mutual suspicion is therefore hard-wired in all of us. We may cooperate with our kin, but beyond that, vast swaths of “others” remain strangers not to be trusted. Many of our automatic responses to everyday situations arise from this influence.
4. Familial Frameworks
The influence of family, both nuclear and extended, in the formation of identity and social norms is profound. Familial frameworks shape our choices without us being consciously aware of them. Children in particular learn much of their behaviour, values and attitudes from the role models they encounter in their immediate surroundings—at school, at family gatherings, at the playground, and especially at home.
5. Social/Cultural Conditioning
Like the influence of family, the impact of our social environment—from our extended kinship group to our local community to the national identity of the country we live in—plays a large role in the formation of our character and behaviour, particularly during childhood. It is a kind of subconscious programming—experiences, especially during the first few years of life, that determine many of our beliefs about the way the world is.
The identity of an individual (and her resultant behaviour) is not always in line with her culture, which is to say, the codified behavioural template that the social group has inherited. This tension between the individual and the collective lies close to the heart of what it means to be human. Using incentives and disincentives, society attempts to reconcile such tensions before they become too problematic. Social conditioning circumscribes the life of the individual, sanctioning and supporting types of behaviour that are deemed positive while punishing behaviour regarded as negative.
6. Life experiences
One of the most evident influences on the way we experience the world is the collection of life experiences, in the form of memories, acquired knowledge (including cultural beliefs), traumas, and likes and dislikes that we gather over the course of our lifetimes. This collection of associations continues throughout adulthood and can direct many of the choices we make in life. We are conscious of some of them, such as rejecting a particular job or a relationship with a particular type of person because we had a negative experience in the past. But many remain below the surface of our awareness.
For most of us, the context shaped by these influences acts like baggage that we are mostly unaware of. But this baggage interferes with almost all of our activities and thought. Becoming free of it is very difficult, but it is the ultimate goal of any effort to improve ourselves at a personal level, which, in turn, is the gateway to reshaping society.
Much like a software program, our context works on predefined algorithms to drive our responses. In other words, the design of the program allows for only a certain number of predetermined outcomes based on the information it receives. For example, we can ask the browser you’re using to access this website to do a number of things based on a menu of options. However, you can’t ask it to do something that isn’t predefined in the menu provided by the programmers who designed it. In the same manner, our context is the source of many of our instinctive thoughts, intentions, fears, insecurities, cravings, addictions and longings. (Let’s call them, collectively, mental formations.)
When we are confronted with a particular situation, or we interact with other people, many of our instinctive reactions to them are determined by these mental formations. Imagine, for example, running into a person you don’t know on the street, perhaps someone who is obviously from a different race or culture or religion than you. You may instinctively react with suspicion (i.e., a natural hostility toward unknown persons stemming from our evolutionary heritage), maybe with dislike and resentment because of cultural conditioning that has taught you, subconsciously, to feel separate and superior to people from other backgrounds; and possibly fear, owing to a bad experience you had previously in a similar situation. Your subsequent behaviour toward the person you’ve just met on the street will almost certainly be determined by these contextual elements.
Though the six elements of our context are mostly outside of our control, we are not entirely powerless. There is one resource that allows us to recognise them and not to be bound by them: our state of consciousness. We have a degree of control over our state of consciousness, and through it, we can transform our lives and thus the world.
Transcendence from automated responses, i.e., the patterns of behaviour generated by our context, is a fundamental step towards true freedom. From a more conscious vantage point within ourselves, we can overcome our fears and insecurities, and discover the qualities of true generosity, openness, curiosity, self-esteem and the ability to love. The question, of course, is how. How do we develop our consciousness such that we are able to see every situation with clarity, and react to it with in a reasonable way that is beneficial to everyone?
The Role of Meditation
Meditation is one of the most ancient techniques for enhancing our awareness. It is a practice that sharpens the mind, allowing it to retool itself so that it is able to progress from one state of consciousness to another. It is an art and needs to be practiced, preferably with a teacher in a group, just like ballerinas always need ballet lessons and football players need to train under a coach.
To understand this, let us think of a person who lives on the ground floor of a very tall building. If he exercises regularly, he will develop the physical capacity to climb the many flights of stairs required to reach the top of the building. Exercising and developing endurance and strength are akin to the focus and concentration that develop in someone who meditates consistently.
As this fit tenant climbs the stairs, he begins to see a different view from each floor. This changed perspective is what we call heightened consciousness. From a state of higher consciousness we become increasingly able to see the landscape below us, i.e., the mental formations that underlie our thoughts and behaviour. When we are able to see the lay of the land from our improved vantage point, we become aware. Being aware doesn’t mean that we’re calm. It doesn’t mean that we are free from all thoughts, emotions, desires, urges, or fears. It just means that we’re able to see and understand ourselves with a degree of detachment.
As our practice of meditation deepens, we begin to see the source of our insecurities, fears, hopes, desires, jealousies and aspirations, and to understand how they emerged, until they become so insubstantial that we can overcome them. As we recognise the insubstantial nature of the root of our mental formations, they lose their power over us. This is true freedom: a liberation that comes not from suppressing or ending our fears, but from seeing them for what they are. There is no task as difficult and as rewarding as taming our mind so as to liberate ourselves from the shackles of our context.
A consistent practice of meditation works in two broad ways. First, just as regular exercising leads to lower heart rate, reduces blood pressure, and increases the functioning of many organs, consistent meditation leads to more focus, better concentration, a calming of the mind, and a sense of mental clarity. Second, it helps us live in a state of heightened awareness. This sustained awareness produces insight, which is the ability to see our mental formations, our habits, our patterns of behaviour and then to rise above them.
To employ an analogy, imagine that your mind is a piece of wood—a flotsam—being tossed around on the surface of a rough sea whose waves are thoughts, emotions, and other mental formations. By developing consistency and discipline, you are able to put a small rudder on this piece of wood and navigate your way. By developing concentration through meditation you are able to mould the raw piece of wood into the shape of a boat and over time the boat grows a sail and with its rudder it can navigate the rough seas.
Meditation is a journey of revelations, beginning with a growing awareness of our mental formations and how they influence us. As we continue our practice, many other shifts begin to take place within us. If you persevere with this practice long enough, you will begin to experience the following shifts in yourself:
The Journey to Higher Dimensions
The First Dimension hems us into a dualistic world, one defined by binary oppositions: us and them, individual and society, cause and effect, victor and vanquished, friend and enemy, observer and observed. In particular, it separates us from our fellow humans by perpetuating the notion of ‘self’ and the ‘other’ that we inherited from our evolutionary past. Thinking that we are separate from everything around us—other people as well as nature itself—leads us, inevitably, to prioritise our own well-being, defined in the narrowest sense. Self-interest is thus the guiding principle of First Dimension thinking.
But this is an overly simplistic way of looking at things. The First Dimension’s binary pairs are merely reductionist interpretations of the multifaceted reality around us. The self-awareness developed through meditation allows us to see the nuances that are necessary to understand a world of interdependencies. We begin to see ourselves and our motivations with greater clarity, but we also see everything that connects us to our fellow human beings with greater sharpness. Instead of a strictly dualistic view of personhood based on ‘self’ and ‘other’ we begin to see the individual not as a separate entity, but rather as a component in a complex matrix of interactions.
With heightened consciousness, we can break free of the First Dimension’s dualist delusion, not by abandoning self-interest but, rather, by understanding self-interest in a much wider scope, i.e., by pursuing goals that benefit us not only as individuals but also as members of communities. As our consciousness develops, our notion of self-interest also grows to encompass the communities of which we are a part. Once we see ourselves not as isolated, independent individuals but rather nodes in a complex web of relationships that bind us to family, neighbours, fellow citizens and to nature itself, we will be able to understand that what is in the best interest of our community and of humanity entire is also in our own best interest.
By abandoning the prison of dualism, we move into the Second Dimension, the dimension of interdependence. This is the midpoint of our journey. Our goal, ultimately, is to develop our consciousness to an even higher level such that we may reach the Third Dimension, the dimension of transcendence.