What do sorting cutlery, obeying traffic lights and Shakespeare’s King Lear have in common? Their relationship is not overtly obvious, yet as with many other possible examples, they can tell us much about our lives and how we live them.
How can everyday cutlery help us make better decisions in life? Take a moment to consider how easy it is to sort cutlery. Something I find myself having to do most days is stacking and emptying the dishwasher. If you don’t have a dishwasher, don’t worry this concept works without one. Simply take the clean cutlery and sort it into the cutlery drawer.
That was easy. That was too easy. Did you notice how quick that actually was? You know the knives go in the knives compartment, the forks with the forks, spoons with spoons. You even know the difference between types of spoons. Ok so now you are thinking, ‘what has this got to do with anything, of course, I know how to sort my cutlery?’ The reason you are able to unconsciously sort cutlery is that you have been conditioned to. This mundane everyday task simply demonstrates how deep that condition is.
Without thinking you can perform the task of sorting objects into a predefined order. Not only can you do this super fast, without thinking, but the order that you are sorting into is not something that you created. It was something that you have learned. It is something other human beings determined and then many many others perpetuated until ultimately it was taught to you. You don’t get much of a choice, you just get to carry on the process.
Traffic lights have been around for just over a century. For many of us, they are part of our everyday movement as we drive or walk to our various destinations. When driving they directly control our behaviour. Green, we go, Red we stop, Yellow, we should slow down and prepare to stop, but in a hiccup of conditioning many of us speed up to catch the light. When I first became aware of how traffic lights were controlling my life I was pretty upset with Red for making me stop all the time, but it soon dawned on me that Green was just as bad as Red in the way it controlled my actions. I’m not advocating anarchy here. There is a good reason we have traffic lights and for pedestrians waiting patiently for the little green man to appear before crossing, they make possible a safe transfer from one side of the street to the other. I don’t mind the safety afforded by traffic lights, I just want to highlight how we have become conditioned to act according to a colour response mechanism.
Cutlery and traffic lights are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In what other ways are your decisions being made based on conditioned responses? I would argue that unless you are making a conscious effort to deconstruct your decisions outside of all social conditioning then perhaps everything you do is predefined by social constructs that have been in place well before you were conceived.
Your world doesn’t have to fall apart when you deconstruct it, however, you may find you can make better decisions for yourself based on what you truly want. Again I’m not promoting anarchy. Social order serves a purpose. Doing only what you want when you want is not what I’m advocating. Actions have consequences and respect for others and their fundamental rights should always be part of decision making.
So how does King Lear fit into all this? Shakespeare gives us a great example of a man who has lived his life according to his conditioned perception of the world. He discovers towards the end of his life that when he makes decisions based on that world’s ‘reality’ they are flawed. His decisions may have a social truth but there is no truth for what is actually real. For example, Lear bases his decision to divide his kingdom on his three daughter’s protestations of love for him. The one that says the least actually loves him most genuinely. Ironically because of her true love for him, she won’t satisfy his ego with false or flowery statements in the way her older sisters are more than willing to do in their thirst for power.
Lear cannot see love other than in the way his society tells him love should be expressed. He doesn’t trust his own experiences of his daughter’s as people. He loves Cordelia most and expects that she will declare it with more passion than the others he loves less. When that doesn’t happen his world order collapses. His idea of what is natural and what is nature become discordant. They are filtered through the prism of the rules of the social order in which he lives. He throws himself into a great storm and relinquishes himself to the forces of nature. At this moment he understands that as a human being he is subject to the whims of nature and no amount of human thought or will can alter that.
Why did I bring Shakespeare into this you may be asking? Before traffic lights, before cutlery and even before Shakespeare, we had social conditioning. As long as we have had social groups interacting, human lives have been conditioned and great artists such as Shakespeare have wanted to tell you about it. They want you to know that there is more going on beneath the surface of human-constructed society. And while social order has its merits, not being aware of it and its control over you can profoundly inhibit your choices.
With awareness, you can blend a socially conditioned life to include genuine decisions that work for you. Ideas such as getting married or a professional career, for example, are fine if you enter into them with awareness. Are you choosing the path ahead because society tells you that is what you want or is it actually what you want? It’s not always easy to see the difference but when you stop to consider your choices, really look at them from outside the social expectation placed on you, then you can make better decisions. Poor decisions can make you feel powerless. They feel this way because despite you thinking it was a choice you made, the reality is you didn’t choose at all.
Human society likes to lay out a life path for individuals. These paths do not consider the individual, however, they only consider what is seemingly best for the collective. If you make a choice that is fundamentally wrong for you then the chances are you are going to feel dissatisfied. For many people, it’s not until their lives change dramatically, through divorce or other significant events, that they begin to question what they actually want from life.
Making decisions with insight, with awareness and clear consideration rather than to satisfy some intangible social ideology can avoid dissatisfaction. It can also bring be confronting for those more stepped in social conditioning.
How do you begin to make decisions in this way? The first step to unlocking understanding is awareness. There are many ways to gain awareness but as a human, it can easily begin by utilising the ways in which we perceive the world. The five senses are our doorway to understanding. We take in a great deal of information every day, yet much of it is filtered in ways we are not consciously aware of. Taking the time to observe your perceptions unlocks a clearer understanding of what is actually occurring. Observing the ways in which you have been conditioned such as sorting cutlery or obeying traffic lights can help you see the many other ways your actions and choices are predefined and not of your own making.
There are many different mindfulness techniques from those taught by Buddhism to those being utilised in contemporary psychology practices and corporate training programs.
It doesn’t matter how you do it. Finding a way that works for you is all that matters and giving yourself the opportunity to see things differently to the way you have been conditioned.
And this is what a metaphorical meltdown sounds like – from The Monday Daily on Radio 2ser 2007 with thanks to my friend The Eavesdropper.
Author – Road to Nowhere