More About the Cultural Trance
by David A. Yeats LCSW

In our culture, almost all of us have been brought up with, or at least exposed to, the idea that our worth as humans is conditional. 

For example, traditional religions speak of sin and salvation, good/bad deeds, confessing, sacrificing, right and wrong, and promote the notion that there is one right path to rewards in the afterlife.  

This conditional worth is reinforced in most of our families, where we are taught there are certain rules and expectations we need to follow and obey, or pay a price.  These rules are often reinforced by threat, shame, blame, and guilt messages that again deepen the sense in our young selves that we are not naturally good, worthy, and intact simply because we are, (unconditionally), and also that we are here on the planet not to honor our own truth, but rather to accommodate to the truths and expectations of others.

We internalize a sense of uncertainty, guardedness, deference to authority, and self doubt.

These values are reinforced in school, in the military, in patriotic principles, and in our social structures.  The majority of Americans hold a view, whether conscious or not, that we are more important if we have more power, influence, education, wealth, or status.  The poor, the less educated, the blue collar workers, etc. along with people of color, women,  gays, lesbians, transgendered and bi-sexual folks, among others, are all viewed through a media prism of caution at best, and fear and distain at worst, which subconsciously affects us all—even those within those demographic groups!

The whole notion of economic survival as well reinforces the belief that our worth is conditional, and also, that whatever value we do have is related to how hard we work or how much we earn.  We are all a part of our national economy, and the world economy, and we are expected to follow the rules set down by the government, by corporations, by bosses, and by companies. Our compliance is usually required to do well economically.  We are in some sense imprisoned by the requirement that we make a living, and most of us become savvy at playing the game, and then, of understanding our identity and our sense of self in terms of the economic structures of our culture.

It is understandable, to a degree, why these rigid values, implicit hierarchies, and highly conditional expectations—that come to define almost all of us—are so much a part of the structure of our world.  

We all need to understand the rules of the game, and the field on which it is played.  We all need to have some order to our worldview, to have a sense of the “place’ of everything in the world.  If this order or schema is lacking, we lose perspective and, with enough confusion, we lose a sense of who we are in the world.

So we all rely on and reinforce this hierarchical notion of how the world is ordered, because we are afraid of the consequences.  But if we hold extremely to this world view, and deny new information and changing circumstance, or resist the implicit change that life generates, we end up clinging to the old, the outdated, the now dysfunctional, and we end up isolated, disempowered, and fearful.  Imagine the highly skilled typist who for thirty years resists the computer keyboard, and how limited her skills become as the environment of the culture changes rapidly around her. 

What we now know, and have documented through cartloads of research, is that some people move past the stage of rule abiders and rule enforcers for themselves and others.  It is possible to wake up from the Cultural Trance.  There is a percentage of people who come to see that their worth and their value as not conditioned on compliance or on others’ expectations.  

When a person starts to consider that they indeed may be unconditionally valuable, they begin to see how their unique perspective on the world can guide them to creativity, visionary opportunity, and expansion.  

It is those on this cutting edge who have created and continue to create and evolve scientific and technologic advances that create creature comfort and convenience, deeper knowledge and possibility.  Because of those who have looked beyond the norms and expectations of what is, the world continues to change, grow, and evolve into something that, viewed from earlier historical perspectives, would be unrecognizable.  From indoor plumbing to the first computers and in thousands of other ways, anyone who lived a hundred years ago would be filled with awe and disbelief if they were to glimpse our world today.  

What we perceive is not all that there is, is not all that’s possible (or we’d still be living as people lived a hundred years ago, or as people who lived in caves without even a fire)!

As with science and technology in the world of matter, it is those on the cutting edge of exploring our inner world, through philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, spirituality, and cosmology, who have deepened our understanding of who we are as conscious and reflective beings, of what is possible, and of our place in the universal scheme.  Not that one new notion has emerged that has become the new world view for the masses, but rather, that the possible perspectives we might take on the big picture are so abundant, that we now have to allow a place for those beating their drum to a different rhythm.  

According to Spiral Dynamics, a theory that has been formulated based on research from thousands of individuals over several decades, we humans move through a series of values as we grow and evolve through life.  The primary values we grow through in a sequential order occur for us as individuals and occur in the cultures in which we live.  Not all of us proceed through all the values stages, and we may be grounded in one value system or another, depending on various life conditions—so we can hold differing values if, for example, we are at home, at work, driving, in school, and so on). The most common value systems in our world today are these:
-we are concerned with basic survival, 
-we try to master the world and nature through our individual dominance, 
-we believe there is a single right way and a single “chosen” group, 
-we believe in material and technologic advancement and achievement, 
-we strive for a world of ecological integrity and equality of all humans.

(See the post on Spiral Dynamics on this website).

Our sense of self and our sense of meaning and purpose in life are determined by these values.
And we tend to see our own point of view as the richest, the wisest, and we may want to impose our values on others, or judge them in comparison.

Each of these values has to do with comparing ourselves to others, defining ourselves by that comparison, and seeing our personal worth and value relative to others.  That’s why power, influence, education, wealth, and status are so important to us.  

A few people learn to value each and all of these perspectives, and come to recognize that it takes people of all persuasions and people at all developmental stages to shape a rich, complex, and evolving world.  

Moving beyond our culturally oriented point of view as THE point of view—to a degree that we come to see that our worth and our value is not merely a social, cultural, or competitive thing— allows us more and more to define ourselves on our own terms, terms that are internally, not externally, measured.  

We naturally move over the course of the lifespan from externally validated definitions of ourselves, to, for some, a blended definition that is both externally as well as somewhat internally validated, to a state where, for a very few, self definition and self validation are viewed almost totally from an internal viewpoint.

The journey of how we see who we are, defined first by our parents and family, then by our peers and partners, then by the workplace and culture, and finally, to a perspective of self definition, is the journey of learning to love ourselves and care for ourselves in ever richer, deeper, and more fulfilling ways. If we understand there is a sequential path we all travel as humans—that there is a map, and there is a predictable unfolding, there are developmental steps we achieve, one step at a time in a predetermined order—we may move more decisively, more clearly, toward an ever richer and more rewarding experience of our lives.