Self-creation as a cultural fulcrum

Our brains are programmable, and we are the programmers

Thanks to science and the discovery of neuroplasticity, we know that we can train our brains. Thanks to the contemplative traditions, we know how to train our minds. The knowledge that we are doing so all the time whether we like it or not – in other words, that we are always active agents in our own self-creation – can be felt to confer a deeper sense of moral responsibility (as well as power). It is a new freedom and a new burden, depending on how we relate to it.

Primarily, our initial reaction to the idea (not the reality) of that moral responsibility/power is what determines our receptivity and access to it as a state. Does the idea of a superior and more inclusive morality make us afraid or does it attract us? Because agency in our own self-creation is a practice of intention, if we are afraid of the idea then the intention to act according to it will not form, and we will remain (for a while) unavailed of a fuller embodiment of what it is to exist and relate.

(Whether the idea feels oppressive or joyful depends, I think, on how we feel about ourselves, our world, and reality. If, deep within us, we believe and feel that we and reality are basically bad or unfortunate accidents, the idea of broader agency will be a cause for existential anguish and regret. If we believe and feel that we and the world are basically good and worthwhile, the idea will be cause for joy and a greater sense of possibility.)

Regret and existential anguish are felt realities, of course. We also know they’re neurological and mental habits. Similarly, joyful self-creation will be a reality if we (a) embrace it as an idea supported by neuroscience, contemplative science and reason, and (b) cultivate the mental habits that give rise to it (doubtless mediated by genetic inheritance and other apparent givens — obviously, your mileage may vary). The point is that, all other things equal, this stage is experientially available to those who cultivate the particular awareness and skill sets. It is already happening in relatively fully actualised human minds on the planet today.

The idea may sound lofty and inaccessible, but the reality is not. Mindfulness meditation is a great practice to begin the process. Through it, we learn to witness the inner activity of self without changing that activity. That includes witnessing our reflexive urge to self-improve, and gradually learning to opt out of such action (not that we always must opt out, simply that we are able to opt out).

Letting-be is a fundamental shift in our usual dynamic with reality, which is one of constantly wanting to improve or change things, whether internal or external. The destination of that shift is a capacity to tolerate the unpleasant and unwelcome as well as the pleasant and the welcome, and eventually even to love them. Through the practice of intentionally bringing awareness and acceptance to our experience, we expand the range of what we are able to tolerate and what we can love — a range that can be expanded literally infinitely.

To return to the idea of a cultural fulcrum, we could contrast the two stages of development that lie on either side of this watershed (that is, the realisation of our capacity for self-creation). On the lower side, we are unaware of our own construction of, and thus the contingency of, our beliefs, habits, emotional patterns, opinions, values, and so on (in other words, the constituents of our self). We experience those as givens and are compelled to act within their bounds; we are stuck with our self as it happens to be.

On the higher side, we recognise that contingency and embrace our participation in it. We experience our selves not as necessary givens but as contingent structures that shape our experience. We will still feel habitual compulsions to act by those structures, but increasingly we will enact the ability to take a broader perspective, which usually means relating more skilfully.

As more people begin to relate and self-actualise in this way, it cannot but give rise to a radically different culture. It’s hard to know what that might look like, but it’s probably safe to say it is more inclusive, more reflective, more perceptive and more compassionate than the culture that precedes it.