Mindfulness of Cultural Conditioning

Photo by Robert Anasch

My husband and I have a longstanding weekend evening tradition of sharing the songs with each other that were defining for us in our youth. Though we are both later born Gen Xers, we were raised in different white cultures; an East Coast child of devout Catholics (one a veteran) and a Midwestern child of areligious, apolitical “hippies”. So, it’s been especially fun to explore the comparisons and contrasts of what was influential for us. Just like many young people, music was the water of life for both of us.

One of the first un-chaperoned concerts I ever went to was covered by a band called Fishbone. I remember thinking they were amazing, their performance far and away surpassing the band they were covering. I didn’t realize at the time how revolutionary it was for a modern all Black band singing countercultural social commentary to be appearing in rural Iowa. I didn’t realize at the time that many of the bands I was listening to were expressing a revolutionary perspective (some prosocial and some antisocial). I simply resonated with the anger and sense of unrest. There was so much I didn’t understand – I was carried away by the raw emotion, the sensory stimulation, and the social connection that sharing music provided.

Though my friends and I connected with the resentment expressed in the music we were drawn to, we weren’t closely listening to or fully comprehending the messages. We didn’t have access to lyrics lists. A song criticizing a genocidal dictatorship in Cambodia, or social inequality, or political hypocrisy sounded, on the surface (or when heard from a poor quality bootlegged cassette tape), very much like songs written by neo-nazis and white power skinheads. There was always a small constituent of peers who were excited simply by the promise of chaos and violence, no matter the underlying message. They were also angry, but they were willing to hurt people.

As a youth, it was often hard to discern between music that spoke out against injustice and cruelty and music that celebrated and promoted it. I think this is also true of many of the norms, beliefs, practices, and products we assimilate and participate in. We’re indoctrinated into a particular perspective from a very early age. For example, the version of history my peers and I trustingly incorporated into our understanding of the world through our schooling was skewed by a lens of power and exploitation – much was distorted or left out.

Though most of us aren’t overtly trained in othering or extractive consumerism, we’ve all been steeped in it for generations. It’s been the water we swim in and the air we breathe, so it doesn’t occur to most of us to step back and look at our assumptions or automatic behaviors critically. I think this ignorance is part of what makes us vulnerable to being co-opted by toxic views and colluding with harmful systems – and even the most advantaged among us suffer because of it.

Now we have information coming at us from every direction. Unlike my generation, which was largely dependent on radio, land line telephone, and newspaper to connect with the larger world, today’s youth in the US has access to the internet, global audiovisual communication, a gazillion TV channels, streaming videos and movies, and home video games. How do we teach future generations to discern and use these resources wisely, so they aren’t vulnerable to disinformation and hateful ideologies – so we don’t self-destruct?

Reflecting upon this heightens my awareness of the importance of mindfulness. Of course younger generations are disappointed by our ignorance, our mistakes, and the consequences they will be left to contend with. This happens generation after generation. We can see this as a sign of hope that our children might learn and do better, rather than defending ourselves, denying our culpability or hiding our regrets. Mindfulness can resource us for this painful work. We can teach our children that their anger is valid, to connect with the intentions behind their anger, and skillful ways to respond to it. We can teach them to be aware of their own inner experience, to connect this to the heart-level understanding that there are no “others”, to pause, reflect, and think critically.

If deep and lasting beneficial change is to occur, it has to start before the fruit of our actions has ripened, before the roots have taken hold, even before the seeds have been sown. We can’t rely solely on an ever expanding docket of policies and laws and an increasingly militarized policing system to enforce them, in order to protect public safety and stand in the place of personal ethics and responsibility. We can’t continue to count on our overburdened and under-resourced mental health, medical, legal and social service systems to whisk away the unsurprising after-effects of our unexamined views and actions.

“When people ask me what can be done, everyone loves the list of legal solutions… read about all the laws that can be changed, or beefed up, or be enforced with greater rigor. But really it’s the debunking of the myths, the changing of ideology, is how we actually change things and where we can actually move the needle – because these ideas are so embedded in everything… all of these things are linked together. And so I really think that it’s the ideological problem that we need to solve first. ” Michelle Meagher, Senior Policy Fellow at the University College London Centre for Law, Economics, and Society

Mindfulness training might be an essential component in this type of paradigm shift – first for ourselves, and then for our children. Many have written and spoken about how this might be so – I invite you to review some of my blog posts about this if you’re so inclined (linked below). Simply put, mindfulness practice can deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world, expanding our choices. It empowers us – maybe even compels us – to step out of automatic pilot and take a broader view before we act. This makes it more likely that we will respond to joys and challenges in sustainable ways that are in alignment with our highest values and contribute to our collective wellbeing.

Interested in learning about the pioneering and innovative band, Fishbone? View the documentary Everyday Sunshine.

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