Social conditioning, the self and sustaining the neo-liberal order

The self and social conditioning
By Graham Peebles

Does the purpose of our lives change with age; does the life of a 30-something have more point to it than, say, a 50- or 60-year-old? Indeed, is there any real point to either, and how would we discover what it is?

To many of us The Cow is the best pub in London. On a quiet balmy Wednesday in June, I met a fellow middle-aged man for a beer, a bite and, much to my surprise, what turned out to be some searching, existential chatter.

What, my friend asked, after a beer or two, is the point of me, the purpose of my life and, by extension, of others like me?

It is a great and fundamental question, perhaps the great and fundamental question, and ought to be widely discussed and seriously investigated. It flows naturally into and out of the question “Who am I”. However, in a world where simply surviving consumes every moment and ounce of energy for the majority, who has the inclination, intellectual space and mental resources for such essential enquiries?


Our lives and the prism through which we see life are largely defined by our psychological and sociological conditioning. That is, by adopted ideas of the self, inherited ideals and prejudices, by circumstance, position, nationalism and through the adoption of a belief system – Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Socialist, Capitalist, etc.

Unconsciously absorbed, these constructs form the foundations of what we take to be “us”. We become “that”, usually “that” which we are told, directly or indirectly, to be. And while such narrow images are artificial and deny freedom – and with it love (not emotional, romantic love, but love free from all desire), there appears to be comfort in such social conformity, and we quickly become attached to our particular self-image and world-view. We wrap this psychological blanket tightly around us, a cosy comforter which is in fact a suffocating prison, and wander through life, maintaining and defending, to the death if necessary, our cherished, fragile viewpoint.

The “point of our lives” is thus defined by the various ideologies held dear, conditioned ideals unconsciously absorbed. We are drawn to people who hold similar ideals and beliefs and exclude those who don’t. To these “others” we are intolerant and critical. “They” and their contrary image – also narrow and built by thought – constitute a threat to our noble views and so “they” are excluded, sometimes violently attacked, often ridiculed.

We believe that our choices and views are reached through the operation of intelligent examination, that the thoughts crowding our minds take place consciously and through the exercise of “free-will”. But it is our unconscious conditioning that largely informs such thinking, controls our reactions, our choices and, crucially, determines who and what we believe we are.

This process is well understood by those who seek to influence our behaviour, and strategies of persuasion are designed and executed to do so. It is the “manufacturing of consent”, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann described it in their landmark book of the same name.

According to Chomsky and Hermann, the mass media are a key weapon in this process and act to “inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society”. This is psychological conditioning, with the media acting on behalf of their corporate interests, which feed into and serve a larger socio-economic ideology. It is a cynical ideology which espouses a deeply materialistic view of life, maintaining that “the point of life” is to maximise pleasure, avoid all forms of pain and fulfil personal desires, which as the Buddha pointed out in the “Second Noble Truth”, is in fact the source of all suffering, as well as being insatiable and endless (if repetitive and unimaginative).

Creating the conditions for dissatisfaction and agitation, however, is one of the aims of the neo-liberal project, dependent as it is on consumerism, which is fuelled by desire. This unwholesome, materialistic purpose, or “point of life” is a construct that the socio-economic shadow under which we live relentlessly promotes and encourages. “Desire is good”, the deluded, dishonest disciples of neo-liberalism say, “buy, buy”, “consume, consume” – “because you’re worth it”! Pleasure is your right, excess and greed is natural and, therefore, healthy. Competition is part of the human condition, and is sewn into our DNA, so the ideology leads us to believe.

Such messages of mischief are poured into the minds of men, women and children every minute of every day. Our cities and towns are flooded with faceless, ubiquitous shopping streets and huge consumer islands, shopping malls – ugly, bland, populated by corporate bodies that control so much, but care so little. These cathedrals of neo-liberalism offer to satisfy the longings created in a congregation conditioned into consumerism, discontent and desire.

Living in this collective amnesia, the human being is lost, depressed and suffering, on a planet that is slowly choking to death. And, glimpsing the madness, but not seeing the alternative, many ask, as my friend did: “What is the point”? There must be more to life, we must be more than this, surely?

Who am I?

We might not know who we are, but we know what we “do” and what we “believe”, even though we may not be clear why we believe it. We have a sense of how we fit into the world around us and, desperate for some sense of security, we cling to this paradigm and are traumatised when it is threatened or shattered. Identifying the self with the physical body and the constructs of the mind, we believe, as the French philosopher Descartes proclaimed, that we are “what we think”: “I think therefore I am”, he famously decreed, never questioning “who” the thinker is. “I think therefore I suffer”, I would say, is closer to the truth.

In a baffling world, within a universe without beginning or end, this identification with thought and the time-based process of becoming appears natural and seems to provide a certain structure and order – a point to life, if you will. It is an illusory security, though, rooted in thought and time. Inevitably, the brittle self-constructed image cracks, causing a crisis of identity and, as time passes, having never truly lived, the mystery of death cries out in the shadows triggering fear and regret.

The self

Within the deep history of Indian society, life and the point of life are understood in various stages from childhood to old age. Although the primary “point” remains consistent, responsibilities change with time. Once the role of “householder” is fulfilled and all family duties have been met, the man – and it is usually a man (although his wife sometimes follows) – may choose to withdraw and, renouncing all personal attachments, enter into an intense period of self-enquiry, to live the life of the Sannyasin. All that pertains to the personality life is given up – all constructs of purpose and position, all desires, relationships and attachments are allowed to fall away. So too is the sense of “ownership or doer-ship”, that is, the identification with oneself as the doer, the one who acts.

Total freedom is the goal: freedom from time, from thought, from all mental constructs and ideals, from all “isms” and, through intense observation, union with the self, or atman, is achieved. It is the self, which the Upanishads and teachers of the East, such as Shankaracharya and Ramakrishna, repeatedly assert to be our real nature, the realisation of which, they make clear, is the true and fundamental “point of our lives”, no matter what else we may do, however worthwhile. The experience of the self will, they teach, come about effortlessly, naturally when the obstacle to the self, namely the ego, is laid aside.

The great 19th century India sage Ramana Maharshi (whom Carl Jung described as “the whitest spot in a white space [India]”) said in various ways and on numerous occasions, “what exists in truth is the self alone”. The self “is that where there is absolutely no “I” thought. That is called “silence”. He taught that the way to shatter the thought-constructed image of the self – the ego – is through self-enquiry. Ask yourself “who am I”, he would counsel. You will find you identify yourself either with the physical body, the emotional life or the activities of the mind. But Ramana and many others have made clear that we are none of these. We are in fact the self, a divine being beyond description or limitations, the awareness and realisation of which is the fundamental point of life.

One day, in one life, when the attractions of the sensory world have lost their charm, when we begin to see the truth of the Buddha’s words that desire is the cause of all suffering; when television, video games, sex, drugs and alcohol fail to fill the inner emptiness; when we sit in a pub with a friend and ask aloud, what the point of it all is. That is when the opportunity to turn away from transient sensory things, to be still, to enquire “who am I”, and to “draw the mind back to its source” which, as Ramana Maharshi explained, is the self itself.

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