What Lies Beyond the Haze of Social Conditioning?

March 24th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

In yesterday’s post I noted that seemingly serious human problems like illness, divorce, and loss become trivial and common when you expand your perspective in time and space.  But if such human problems don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, then is human existence itself also trivial?  Is there a risk that broadening your perspective will cause you to feel that your life is meaningless and unimportant?

Intentionally broadening your perspective is an awareness-raising experience.  One of the fears of doing this perspective shifting, however, is that it will make you feel that your life is pointless in comparison to the vastness of time and space.  And you know what?  That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen… initially.

One little human’s sniveling complaints don’t amount to much when viewed from a broad enough perspective.  All the things you think are important — your job, your home, your family, your health — really aren’t that important from a cosmic perspective.  They only seem important from the perspective of your individual ego.  But beyond yourself and perhaps a handful of others, virtually no one cares.

When you center your life around things that are important to your ego but relatively insignificant from a broader perspective, then you’ve got a bit of a problem.  Your ego becomes highly invested in keeping your perspective small and tight because that’s where the ego draws its identity.  Your job, your relationships, and your personality quirks become your identity.  It’s how you define yourself as an individual.  You become invested in your problems because they help your ego define itself.  The ego needs boundaries to survive, and expanding your ego threatens the ego and its sense of self.  If you broaden your perspective too far, you will begin to feel you’re losing touch with reality.  You may feel disconnected, depressed, or uncomfortably separated from the rest of the world.  You start asking, “Is this all there is?”  What once seemed fulfilling now leaves you empty inside.

Social conditioning also teaches us to keep our perspective small in time and space.  When do TV characters ever take on a cosmic perspective?  Most don’t broaden their perspective beyond themselves and their families.  At best they assume the perspective of their community, their religion, or their country.  These characters condition you to do the same, and you probably don’t even realize that there’s an alternative.  If the media can control your perspective and keep it small and tight, then it can more easily influence you to do what it wants, such as “keep watching” and “buy stuff.”  A person with a limited perspective will more easily become a media addict and will buy things to feel secure.  Materialism helps maintain the illusion of that limited perspective.  A person with a cosmic consciousness doesn’t need much stuff because s/he will perceive it as trivial or unimportant, which indeed most of it is.  Hence, the media doesn’t encourage us to broaden our perspective beyond a certain point (usually no further than one’s own nation or religion).

The most common way to shrink someone’s perspective is to put them into a state of fear.  Make them feel their survival is threatened.  Fear shrinks perspective.  Fearlessness expands it.  Fearlessness can take the form of unconditional love, service, transcendence, or even just curiosity.  Does traditional media usually leave you feeling more fearful or more fearless?  Of course it’s the former, but the fear is sold to you like a comfortable old shirt.  You become so accustomed to it that you forget you’re wearing it.  You just conform to social norms and assume that it’s the most intelligent way to live.

In the USA, for example, we’re encouraged by the media to consider how much it will cost us to buy a gallon of gasoline and whether gas prices will go up or down (individualism) or what those misguided Arabs are doing to our oil supply (nationalism).  If we support a foreign war or oppose it, it’s because of what effect it’s having on us, either individually or collectively.  Our soldiers are dying.  Our President is making us look bad.  Our corporations are manipulating us.  Our national debt is out of control.  My taxes might go up.  My budget might be stretched.  My family member might be killed.  We aren’t encouraged to consider such situations from the viewpoint of planet earth as a whole, or how our actions today might affect future generations.  We perceive each other as separate and distinct individuals as opposed to cells in the same body.

People who have broadened their context beyond the scope of nationalism tend to behave very differently than those who still subscribe to the socially conditioned paradigm.  For one they aren’t so easily manipulated, and they’re more interested in long-term solutions than in placing blame or quick fixes.

A promising development I’ve been seeing is that the dominant social paradigm in the USA is beginning to break down.  People are starting to question whether our rugged individualism is such a good thing after all.  What once served us so well is finally crumbling for the simple reason that it’s unsustainable.  It’s a paradigm that will eventually leave us drowning in our own wastes.  In this sense humans are no different than bacteria in a petri dish.  Each individual working only for its self-interest ultimately contributes to the destruction of the whole collective.

When you first begin to awaken from the social haze, it can be very frightening.  You may feel disconnected, alone, and isolated.  You seem to notice things that no one else around you does.  And you begin to question whether or not your new perceptions are accurate.  Initially, you may feel worse than you ever have before.  You thought you knew what life was all about, but now… everything just seems broken.  Perhaps you feel this crushing weight of helplessness upon you.  You sense that something isn’t right, but you feel powerless to change it.

For some people this awakening may come via the head.  You begin to question the way most people live, and it looks more and more insane to you.  For others it comes through the heart.  Perhaps you bite into your ham sandwich one day, and it suddenly dawns on you that an animal had to suffer and die as a result of your choice, and maybe just a tiny bit of compassion seeps into your awareness.  Other people may wake up through the consciousness-expanding work of meditation.  And still others may find that it’s through service to others that they expand their perspective.  The process by which this expansion occurs isn’t that important.  What matters is simply that it does occur.

When you begin to awaken to a broader perspective, it may feel so uncomfortable that you will desperately want to return to your old perspective.  But it is already too late.  As hard as you try, you will find no more joy in the trappings of your previous life.  You may suffer from a marked decline in ambition and an almost overwhelming problem with procrastination.  As you look around, all you will see are empty surfaces with no depth.  Your motivation to do anything drains out of you.  You might even begin to feel stressed and panicked about it.

If you seek help from others who haven’t yet been through this expansion of consciousness, they won’t be able to help you.  They will only make things worse for you.  They may even want to drug your problem to help you try to forget.

Higher awareness is like a fire that burns within you.  It will gradually burn off that which cannot hold its energy.  Many parts of you will die.  You will gasp for breath as you see your previous career ambitions, your old projects, your relationships, and your attachment to possessions fall away one by one.  You will lament these losses, and you may begin to wonder if you will have anything left.  What once seemed important to you now becomes only dust.

Everyone experiences this process differently.  For some it is a spiritual awakening.  For others it feels like a midlife crisis.  Your initial reaction will be to fight it, but such attempts will be in vain.  You’re undergoing a quantum leap to a higher level of awareness, and there is no turning back.  Once the process begins, it is irreversible.  The more you fight it, the more suffering you will experience.

As you progress through this period of expansion, the pain and fear will eventually subside.  You will begin to feel more at peace.  Your former life will be broken, but a new one will start to emerge.  Once you acknowledge the trivial as trivial, you’ll be ready to refocus your life on that which has the potential to matter.  You will begin to seek out and embrace the real purpose of your life.  And your new state of consciousness will begin to feel comfortable and even pleasurable to you.  Discovering what actually matters enough to devote your existence to it is the very heart and soul of personal development.

Once you’ve completed this expansion of your perspective, you’ll finally start living as the great spirit you truly are instead of as the shell that houses it.  You will permanently recognize the trivial as trivial, and no amount of social conditioning will be strong enough to shrink your awareness back down again.  You will still be able to function in the world, but at a whole new level.  Many people have tremendous fear that if they expand their awareness, they will fall so out of touch with reality that they’ll put their survival (and their family’s survival) at risk.  But this transitional phase is only temporary.  On the other side is a place where survival becomes easy, so easy in fact that it barely requires any attention at all.  And from this new place, you can live as the fearless being you were always meant to be.  Joy will become your natural state, and you will finally know what is important enough to live for.

If you haven’t yet begun to experience this expansion, then this description will make little sense to you (in fact, it’s doubtful you’ve read this far because your ego would have compelled you to stop reading).  If you’re experiencing this expansion in your life now, then just know that your “dark night of the soul” will eventually end; you can make it easier on yourself if you learn to relax into it without resisting.  And if you’ve already emerged on the other side, then the above is just a summary of what you’ve already been through.


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