When you meditate a lot, things happen that restructure the way you experience thought. On a lucky day, you might experience a few moments of what’s called “jhapa”; a very brief period of perfect stillness and silence when you are only barely aware of your own existence. You see your own thoughts emerge like bubbles floating up from mud to the surface of the pond, and you realize two things. Thinking is an activity, it isn’t who you are. And – if not me, who’s doing this? Where are these thoughts coming from as though by themselves?
With this comes the understanding, not conceptually, but with recognition, that what you think of as yourself is not quite right. What you experience as yourself is the packaging of many, many layers, most of which are out of your reach and control and cognition. You are only the tip of a mountain that rises up from a dark sea bottom. When you start watching your thoughts during the day and questioning things, watching and questioning your dreams there is a slight fragmenting of your sense of self as you start opening those basement doors. It’s dark and smells funky down there. And soon things start trying to come up the stairs to where you are.
What has always been America’s strong point has been the enabling of the individual. It has been based on the ideal, partly myth, that a man could come here from anywhere and make something of himself without the constraints of class or tradition holding him down. This was mostly true as long as he was male, and as long as he was white. If you were anyone else it could be pretty rough. Most of society remained bound by social structure and constraints. It held things together with a kind of social glue and it also held us back. This is the nature of tribe, even as tribe has begun to disintegrate and reassert it in others ways.
Tribe is one of the two great themes in my life. I spent my young adult life in a tribal, communal life style which worked very well for me while it lasted. Then I lost my tribe. In recent years I’ve acquired another tribe which has a lot of my devotion. So much of my life has been about this sense of connection and communal purpose. That’s the good side of tribe, when it works. In the old days I had the people around me that I loved and needed, I had few possessions but needed very few because so much was shared. And life made perfect sense. When I lost that tribe, I lost all those things, including the bit about life making perfect sense.
But the dark side of tribe is that a place is set for you, defines you, and defines who you are to yourself. It doesn’t allow for you trying to change all that without the tribe’s permission. If the tribe doesn’t give you permission, you’re stuck where you are and you still need that tribe to survive and be happy.
In the early days of the colonies Benjamin Franklin and others noted that there were many stories of “civilized” white settlers running off to join Indian tribes, and settlers who had been captured and adopted into the tribes and when offered freedom refused to return to civilization having found a true home. Modern society does not work well for the mental health of Homo Sapiens. There is that in our genes which longs for tribe.
We are descended from pack hunting predators, from tribal communities who depended on each other for life itself. For success in the hunt, in which all food was shared equally. For security against warring tribes next door. You rose and fell, lived and died with your tribe, not as individuals. As long as you looked out for your tribe, your tribe looked out for you. But you had to stay in your designated place. This thinking is not lost, it still remains in our very brain wiring and only needs that circumstance to revive it.
When the pill came along, that quiet revolutionary invention, women suddenly had control over their bodies, and consequently their destinies. They sought education, careers, an intellectual life. With the civil rights movement, people of color struggled and continue to struggle to be recognized as free and equal human beings. Women and ethnic minorities have broken free of the limits imposed on them by the national tribe. In my lifetime I have seen people freed of their bonds. With the advent of social media and the internet there is a national, and international awareness of ourselves as a species and a worldwide tribe that was never conceivable before. But with these changes, has come a great introspection and a great unbinding of all the social demons in our species that had previously remained mostly out of sight. We are now a species and a nation that in an election year is becoming more and more unglued and unbound and coalescing into new forms of tribe, liberal and conservative, pro this and anti-that. The basement doors are being kicked open and things that have lurked for generations are clattering up the stairs. Tribe is who we are, and it is an energy that has broken free and unchecked, exploited but not yet harnessed.