During my childhood, whenever I’d seem to acquire a new word, such as bullshi*, or was behaving in a less than angelic manner, my mother would query me in an effort to determine the source: Who have you been playing with in the neighborhood? She understood, intuitively, that we learn by imitation and that our behavior is influenced by the groups with which we associate. What seemed odd to me was my mother’s blind spot for language. My Uncle Paul said bullshi* all the time. I saw my Uncle Paul as a powerful man – willing to call a spade a spade. In the present, do I swear more often when I’m watching Jon Stewart, whom I respect as a sort of modern Mark Twain? Probably, but I also think I’m funnier. But just to be clear, Jon Stewart is a small part of some of my days, an exercise buddy – not a hero or role model. We should become aware of our entire lives. Wherever we give selective attention there is the potential for influence. So the first question of influence relates to social identity: with whom do you identify, socialize, and associate?
Everyone has heroes or influences — whether they turn out to be a parent, a family member, a celebrity, a sports hero, a spiritual or religious figure (past or present), or a mythic or archetypal figure such as Yoda or Merlin. After you have identified your heroes, try to determine what qualities in your hero that you admire. Imagine, for example, that Yoda is your hero and that you admire his ability to use the Force. Fantasy has its place in the creative simulations of the imagination and in the creative escape from entrapping circumstance. But for Yoda to exert practical influence on your life you may need to become aware of Yoda-qualities. Become patient you will. Develop discipline you must. Equanimity, I modeled. Yoda has the potential to provide inspiration like mythic religious figures.
Some people are drawn to historic heroes. A dark example can be found with the late President Nixon. It is well known by historians that Nixon held General Patton, of WWII fame, in high esteem. The actor George C. Scott won an Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of General Patton. In the biography RICHARD M. NIXON, author Elizabeth Drew states that Nixon viewed the film PATTON “again and again”. She also states that on the eve of the invasion of Cambodia, “Nixon invited his aides to yet another viewing of Patton.” The film transmitted to Nixon a message of American superiority and the notion that “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” It’s easy to speculate that without his participation in the movie PATTON, Nixon would not have invaded Cambodia.
Next, let’s consider the influence exerted by the experience of our lives, which in turn can become projected through association into ongoing circumstances. Here are two examples:
1) When I was a human services program director, I received numerous phone calls at home from various job sites — reporting incidents, staff shortages, or looking for assistance trouble shooting problems. Over time, the ring of the telephone would trigger mild anxiety over the anticipation of “what now?” My association with the telephone was more negative than positive. 2) In Minnesota, where I spent many years, I noticed that folks developed a negative association with winter that I did not have. Given that I may be amongst the most cold-sensitive people on the planet, I wondered why that was. The answer: associations over time. For starters, I didn’t need to commute very far to my job, did not have to battle the elements to be on time. Related to that, I drove four-wheel-drive vehicles, which removed most of the possibility of getting stuck. And finally, contrary to what I observed in most of my fellows, I dressed warmly for cold weather. Over time, these factors played into how other folks developed a negative association for winter in the same way as the accumulating crisis phone calls temporarily turned the phone off for me.
In addition, external viewpoints can attract our perception. For example, advertisers are extremely sophisticated in manipulating people into a certain mindset, and they learn more about us all the time. You may not buy their product, but you will be influenced as to what is a desirable lifestyle. I am oppositional by nature, and I can still see the subtle influences exported by commercial culture. This is what it means to stream perception. As an expression of will, I decided in 1991 to remove my attention from all commercials on television or radio. The Internet spreads out its ads, so I need to attend mindfully to the areas of the screen to which I am interested. If I could also stop reading road billboards, I would. But I am conditioned to read road signs, and have often read a billboard before I realize it. So I turned billboards into meditations, each a reminder that I am human and can be manipulated. Then I bring myself home to the present moment, like listening to a meditation chime.
Perceiving your influences can be accomplished by keeping a journal or diary, laying off narcissism and objectively reporting things around you just as they are. It’s like the work of a journalist or poet. Think about how you could describe your family, your job, your hobbies, your distractions, your associations, your lifestyle – not in broad generalizations or with philosophical conclusions, but in the actual details of what you have witnessed of your life, as well as an observation of your response. Is the workplace nurturing, indifferent, sometimes cruel? Look at where you live, the neighborhood, and your personal living space. Capture it in words or a photograph. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Observe your reactions to events. Were they out of proportion? Or was a lack of reaction inappropriate? You could carry around a portable tape recorder to assist a busy memory. For example: “A car cut me off on the freeway. I got angry, wanted to speed up but refrained.” “Doris brought in her wedding photos, which garnered much attention. We all got a much needed break. Yes, I felt jealous.” A story or stories will emerge, the themes of your life. Gurdjieff had a similar notion with his “stop exercise,” in which he would randomly call out for a group to stop whatever they were doing and observe everything about the moment, including unedited thoughts and feelings.
As part of your journalism, observe decor and the objects of importance in your environments. Whenever I would visit someone new, I used to enjoy looking at their bookshelves and music collection, because it said something about the individual. Today, much of that sort of external display has become digital. But you’re the sleuth to your own life. You know the password to all your actual and metaphoric computer programs. You can look in any cupboard or drawer for clues to your influences.
Joseph Campbell said you could tell what is most important in a city by its tallest buildings. In mediaeval Europe, cathedrals were the tallest buildings. In today’s modern cities, commercial skyscrapers dominate. According to Campbell, that would indicate commerce has become more important than religion in our modern cities. The same is true as to how space is allocated in one’s personal environment or home. What objects or features are granted the most significance or space? Is it an entertainment center with surround sound or a large dining room that may or may not get used? Or perhaps you worship the latest technology.
Follow yourself throughout a day, and then a week. Once the inventory is complete you can look for patterns. What grabs your attention and by what are you most easily distracted?
It’s powerful to be mindful of your life. Resist the urge to judge (for example: I’m a bad person because I have two cartons of ice cream in my freezer). Pretend you are an alien from anther planet or dimension who is only making observations in order to determine patterns in an unbiased manner. If you slip into judge, you may be participating in the perception of that part of culture that would judge you. This is an exercise in mindful observation. Hopefully, you will begin to understand your influences and see where your identities lie.
Awareness allows us to make choices that are informed and intentional.