SPIRITUALITY 102

REVIEW FROM ARTICLE 101: There is such a thing as objective reality, but from the day you're born, damn near everyone in your life plays mind games to get you to believe what they want you to believe independent of the truth. Spirituality is a discipline for untangling the false belief systems and discerning the underlying truth.

IT'S NOT WHAT THEY SAY. IT'S HOW THEY SAY IT

I was watching a commercial for a car dealership which incorporated every negative car salesman stereotype. It was loud and pushy. The announcer talked fast and spoke of complicated financing schemes and muttered rapid-fire fine-print disclaimers. Numbers, prices, models and options flew past the screen. Nothing stayed on the screen long enough to read. Don't even try.

Based on the negative car salesman stereotypes contained in our daily entertainment, there was nothing in the commercial to suggest that this dealership wasn't among the worst of them. What idiot would buy a car from this place if it truly is what it appears on its commercials to be? The owner of the dealership must be getting the desired result, because he keeps spending money year after year on this kind of advertising.

Related story....

I was watching a television evangelist the other day and after about ten minutes I noticed that he's Australian. It was five minutes before I noticed anything the least bit unfamiliar. The traditional televangelist presentation (the cadence, the repitition, the phrasing, the parallel constructions and other rhetorical devices) was broad enough that it masked the evangelist's natural accent.

Everybody knows the stereotype, the fiercely punctuated vocals, the helmet hairstyle, the overwrought emotionality. I think everybody pretty much knows that those same stereotypes have negative connotations due to some of these guys from time to time getting caught paying their whores with embezzled money.

And yet, every new evangelist that comes along has pretty much the same act and adopts pretty much the same trappings as the guys who get caught doing bad bad things. It certainly is an act, a set of affectations deliberately adopted to establish themselves in a social role. Why do they deliberately fashion themselves in the image of whoremongers and crooks?

Here's why they do it. It works. The image is so strong that it overpowers the bad examples, even if they come along pretty frequently.

It's not the message. It's not the content. It's the form. For all the information they convey, they might as well be barking like a Burmese goat. In fact, look at how much trouble these guys go to confuse matters. The noise, the movement, the lights, the colors, the urgency, the emotionality, the obscure terminology ("limited power train warranty," "the anointing of the holy spirit)".

I learned how to use this myself one Thanksgiving.

We all know how dinner conversation goes at family gatherings. Everybody has something very important to say and only a couple of hours in which to say it ten times, so everybody yammers simultaneously at the top of their lungs from the moment they show up to the time the car door closes on them and they drive away.

I discovered one time that just a few words delivered with authority in that evangelical style could jar the room into stunned silence and cause the assembled to look as if they'd been slapped in the belly with a carp. At first I was tempted to believe that they were thunderstruck by the force of my personality (zapped by the old charismatron). Then I figured out that every one of them, like myself, was trained from the time they could sit in a pew to shut up and pay attention when they heard somebody talking like that. We all live in a very complicated Skinner box, and I had triggered the cue that makes the chicken peck the piano keys.

Their reaction was involuntary. It didn't last very long. They eventually realized it was just me and they went back to their own matters. The point is that I had triggered a cue that unhinged the whole room for a few seconds. That shaddup-n-payattenshun button was installed by the church. I pushed it that day and it worked. Televangelists push it every day, and it works and works and works.

Once you start noticing these buttons, you can't stop noticing them. It's easier to notice them in other people, easiest to notice in people who resemble you the least. You've used your intellect to convince yourself that your own buttons represent rational reactions and not involuntary impulses imposed on your mind by people who want to take advantage of you. I guess a Scientologist would accuse me of rediscovering the engram and a behaviorist would say this is just plain old operant conditioning as described in the early 20th century. Call it training, socialization, brainwashing. There's nothing new about it and all those descriptions amount to the same thing. People who know your buttons can make you hop like a laboratory monkey.

If you want to be more free than you are right now, discover those triggers that society has placed in your personality and desensitize yourself.

WHO'S GOT THE BUTTON?

Locating your own buttons is a problem. There's something repugnant in the notion that we respond predictably and involuntarily to cues delivered by, for example, an ad agency in faraway New York. The idea is so unattractive that we tell ourselves it doesn't happen. We pretend the reaction is voluntary. I remember hearing an interview with a guy who had mild Turets syndrome, which caused him to grunt and twitch involuntarily. He said that he became good at working these little spasms and utterances into his conversation so that they became parts of his public personna, rather than cop to the fact that his cerebral spark plugs were misfiring and he had no control over his twitches at all. We're like that. We incorporate our involuntary reactions into a framework that looks voluntary to us.

If you saw "Back to the Future," you are familiar with Marty McFly, who can be goaded into doing any stupid thing at all just by calling him "chicken." Characters like that justify their buttons in terms of honor, pride, manhood or self-testing. You can't possibly prove to them that they are responding mechanically, and if you get close to succeeding you'll get a hostile reaction. We cling to our chains as if they were gold jewelry.

For example, if I were to suggest that a sequence of musical tones could make you stand up, and that discontinuing the sequence would cause you to sit down, you'd think I was proposing a creepy, Orwellian scenario. Then if I played your national anthem for you, after you stood up and sat down you'd likely become angry with me and accuse me of being unpatriotic or even subversive by suggesting that the national anthem can be cynically used to trigger emotions and involuntary compliance. So be warned, discovering your buttons can be pretty unpleasant. It's a journey of discovery fraught with danger, deception, misdirection, backtracking, wasted time. Worst of all you're going to discover that for most of your life you've trusted the wrong people. That's going to suck.

BECOMING LIKE A CHILD

All your great gurus use this metaphor, don't they. In order to enter the kingdom of heaven you must be born again and become like a child. I interpret that to mean you've got to build a new, more accurate world view from scratch. That's going to be hard. You've spent thirty years cobbling together your old world view out of whatever scrap materials came your way. During most of that time you were young and couldn't discriminate good information from bad, so assume there's lots of bad information in your world view.

At one point your world view probably incorporated the fact that some reindeer can fly. Expunging that fact from your world view likely caused you a certain amount of anxiety. It was false, but you didn't want to give it up. The free toys deal was pretty sweet. Accepting the new paradigm meant that you'd been suckered and for years your parents lied to you. In fact, the whole world was made of suckers and liars. You're either in on the scam, or you're being scammed. Tough lesson for a six year old. The lie is pretty attractive. The truth is unappealing.

Yet the fact of riender flight is independent of the number of people who sincerely believe in it. Ten million preschoolers can't be wrong? Sure they can.

Suppose you believe that the universe is about six thousand years old. A lot of people really believe it, and there's a lot of good stuff attatched to that belief -- not the least of which is the fact that this faith of yours is your ticket to eternal life. Now we live in the 21st century where respected scientists are coming at you every day saying they've got evidence the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old.

A challenge like that is going cause you some anxiety. Fundamentalism requires a literal interpretation of the Bible and that means a young earth. If the scientists are right, fundamentalism crumbles. And putting the shoe on the other foot, how much evidence would be required to make a biologist, who has built an academic career on the assumption of the truth of evolution, accept creationism as fact. If a young earth could be proven, evolution crumbles. Think of how many academic careers would be instantly invalidated.

So what's the point of those examples? People really want their version of the truth to be the prevailing version of the truth. Money is at stake. Social authority, academic and religious, is at stake. Being wrong about something big like "the universe" might make your clients (students, the flock) feel bad, especially if the product your selling is your cosmological world-view. They're going to try pretty hard to stamp you with theirs, and their tricks amount to the installation of buttons.

RED FLAG NUMBER ONE--RITUAL

Ritual is something that people do in order to impress on the participants that something is important. The more ritual, the more important.

Football games are filled with ritual action. Coin toss. Kickoff. Ritual music. Marching band. School songs, national anthem. Ritual clothing. Presentation of the colors. Cheerleaders have one kind of ritual clothing, pep squad another, marching band another, some goofball in the end-zone is wearing a rainbow wig and has something painted in shoe polish on his fat belly. Ritual foods like beer and hot dogs. Mass participation and recitation elements like chants and cheers designated appropriate for particular times under particular conditions for particular teams, "calling the hogs," "tomahawk chop," usually a benediction before the game and so on. The ritual elements need not be confined to the game itself. Tailgate parties, pep rallies. Everything with its assigned time and place and pretty much identical from game to game, season to season, generation to generation wherever the game is played.

Compare the pre-game ritual in a high school game to the pre-game ritual in the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl's pre-game takes about a week. The pre-game inside the stadium takes a couple of hours.

All of these ritual elements are there to impress the event on your mind. They all work together to deliver the message, "This is a big deal."

A wedding is a ritual that emphasizes the importance of a social contract, namely marriage. In a wedding you'll find appropriate ritual music and costumes, ritual foods, ritual dances, ritual stations and actions for specific participants, maid of honor, father of the bride, an appeal to a higher power, either god or the state, to legitimize the proceeding. I won't bore you with a complete list, but it goes on and on and creates the impression that, "This is important." Participation in that ritual is a promise of compliance. Everybody agrees by their presence to play along with the new paradigm, that these two kids are now stuck with each other.

A marriage contract has real social importance regarding property, the raising of children and mutual support and responsibilities. The Super Bowl has no real social importance. No matter which "your team" is, it is comprised of mercenary athletes who went where they could get the best deal. Football promoters have discovered that they can use the usual ritual elements to create the impression that you have some stake in the matter and that the outcome really matters. They are so accomplished at holding your attention that they demand and get a million dollars a minute for access to that attention.

They have hijacked your buttons. They push your buttons to involve you emotionally for the purpose of selling your attention to people who are going to sell you their products.

Where should you look if you want to discover where your buttons are? First, look for things that are surrounded by ritual elements discussed above.

...to be continued.

RTJ--3/11/2002


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