Over the last few weeks, I have been reading the work of psychologist Ellen Langer. As I write this, she has three books published, in addition to many journal articles and scholarly papers.
Langer’s books are far from stereotypical. She presents her ideas neither in the style of an exacting academic, nor an unabashed pop psychologist, but as someone genuinely engaged in and encouraging a deeper exploration of this thing we call life. She writes easily, engagingly, and broadly, but seriously and thoughtfully too. Her topics revolve around studies of contemporary life that shed light on how we all live – and how we often all fail to live as fully and completely as we might.
In each of her books, Langer offers important scientific and experiential insights into our modern human mind. She focuses primarily on the ways we are all conditioned to think and act unconsciously or only semi-consciously, and how our living in this way leads to life that is far less than optimal and satisfying. Langer uses these insights to challenge our ideas about ourselves and our perceptions of the world, and leads us to important opportunities for new growth and fulfillment in our lives, wherever we may be in life and the world.
For me, there is a nurturing and yet playful spirit in Langer’s work, one prodding us with unconventional wisdom to find new attentiveness and perspective in our strangely conventional and yet unprecedented times. Langer’s is a spirit calling us to be more engaged, creative, and joyful in and with our daily lives. And she asks us to be especially careful with our potential for hurried, ill-considered, and needlessly self-limiting orthodoxy in the way we approach the world, literally moment by moment. Through her research and provocative ideas, she shows us the way to much greater personal abundance, to a more direct experience and deeper appreciation of life, one that can begin, beginning today, for each of us.
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If you are not familiar with Langer, I should tell you that she is a social psychologist and prolific student of people, who enjoyed early success in her career. As a young researcher, Langer worked with elderly nursing home residents and probed whether they could become happier through simple “life engagement” practices. These practices encouraged conscious acts of attentiveness and new awareness of self and surroundings in the often repetitive, mind-numbing, and dehumanizing setting of a home for the aged. Whether through the selection and care of plants or by consciously and creatively changing their daily routine, Langer’s experiments encouraged residents to draw new distinctions and find novelty in the way they thought about and perceived the world and themselves.
In these early-career experiments, Langer’s research found not only that these residents were far happier as a result of her exceedingly simple engagement techniques, but surprisingly that they lived much longer too (with experimental groups having roughly half the death rate of corresponding control groups over two years). The results were a surprise to many scientists and health advocates, and have since been investigated and confirmed by other researchers, affording Langer considerable acclaim and influencing geriatric care.
Langer’s own work has since explored the idea of increasing personal attentiveness and engagement – of promoting “mindfulness” as she calls it – in other settings and in daily life generally, with similar and similarly compelling results for us all. If you take up one of Langer’s books, expect her approach to be scientific in orientation, but also friendly and accessible in treatment as I suggested before. And don’t be surprised if many of her ideas and conclusions seem “far eastern” in tone, even if this is not what Langer set out to achieve. Her scientifically-based findings about the importance of creative engagement and attentiveness in our daily lives – for health, happiness, and longevity – are thoroughly modern and critically important for all of us living in these modern times, even as they pay homage to earlier schools advocating meditative life.
Langer’s most recent book, On Becoming An Artist, is an intimate and personal, but still research-highlighting, exploration of human creativity, and its strong link to and propensity to foster the more mindful and attentive living that Langer advocates. Toward the end and in summary of her book, Langer makes a comment that caught and held my own attention, given my work promoting more natural approaches to modern life, and her comment forms my main subject today:
“To be mindfully engaged is the most natural, creative state we can be in.”
Out of context, Langer’s comment about the naturalness of engagement or attentiveness might be taken as a simple platitude, something any of us could say in a moment of repose or inspiration. Within the body of her work on the many barriers we all face (and even create ourselves) in living more attentively and thoughtfully, however, her idea compelled me to consider my own thinking on our “true” natural mind and human state – and if it was in fact our very desirable state of self-conscious attention.
Considering “our natural state” gave me the opportunity to sift through both historical and contemporary ideas about the natural condition of human life and our human psyche. It also allowed me to more fully appreciate the important and often unconscious ways that past and current ideas can shape and limit our approach to life today. This last idea, on how the past and our environment can intrude on our personal present, has enormous consequences for the quality of our lives we live each day, as Langer’s and a great deal of other contemporary psychological research suggests is the case.
So, to begin a short but definitive journey down a path to uncover and clarify our natural state, let me ask a few related questions to prepare our way: Is mindful engagement our natural state? Is our natural human state of mind a creative and inventive one? Is our natural mind a good and beneficent and desirable state? If so, or if not, what are the personal implications for us in the way we live each day? And what are the implications of our ideas about our natural mind for the way we approach others, organize communities, and educate and socialize children and young people?
It may seem that we have quite a bit of ground to cover, but I will propose a way of thinking about our self and environment in an integrated way that works to resolve each of these questions at the same time, and in a way that returns us to Langer and her work on the importance of attentive and mindful life.
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If we survey our historical literature on these important questions, we might be apt to conclude that our natural mind is not a creative one, or a beneficent one either. After all, many of the world’s major religions suggest that our original, natural state was anything but engaged and creative. Often, our natural or at least pre-religious state is proposed as one that was patently undesirable and it is well that we should be forever cut off from it.
It is true that some religious thinking presents our natural state as blissful, as a time without care or responsibility, where our needs were attended to by divine forces and little effort was needed to live in harmony with the world. This conception is a sort of custodial state of nature, which in curious ways is not entirely unlike the settings of Langer’s early research subjects. One might suppose from this idea of original bliss that we are thus naturally open and caring as people, but I think carefree would be a more logical conclusion. After all, a completely blissful and pain-free existence would soon turn us into insensitive and unthinking creatures, since there would be neither need nor opportunity for compassion, sociability, or contemplation in such a protected or custodial state.
In this sense, any perpetual human condition of bliss or care, whether before or after our time in this world, might be re-cast as a time of remarkably low engagement and of creativity made impossible, a time even of unending mindlessness, and thus quite undesirable and far from Langer’s proposal for the primacy of attentive and creative life. In a setting where food falls from trees, serotonins flood our brains, or clouds drift through our wings each moment of an eternal existence – as in the Garden of Eden, but as only one example of a common thread of historical and inherited thinking about the prospect and desirability of eternal bliss – nothing is needed or desired, or attended to.
Such idealized states might therefore in truth ultimately be human conditions of eternal indolence, a life of thoughtlessness and indifference to our surroundings, a narcotic existence with few demands or opportunities for attention to the world. In supernatural life, there would be only the repetitive experience of endless time and our own endless existence within it, and of other incorporeal entities in similar straits, who would quickly tire of us and we of them (and so we might make women and men to amuse us). Eternal bliss is thus likely a truly mindless and highly undesirable state, a sentence really, containing little to foster a truly humane (and natural, to Langer’s point) life of creativity and engagement. It would be a disengaged and artificial state of being, one of true meaninglessness in the words of existentialists. This is certainly close how the Greco-Roman world often thought of the afterlife.
In truth, many religious and historical ideas about our natural human state suggest that it was the reverse of bliss, the opposite of Eden’s placidity, a time of great evil and chaos, of muscle and cunning – a state of longing, violence, and sinfulness. Cast from paradise but hoping to return again and forever, the devout Christian lives each day with the grave ideas of original sin and imperfectability, with feelings of unworthiness as endemic to our basic nature. This outlook can foster a periodically ecstatic and rapturous approach to life, but more generally a reduced interest in life among us and the natural, a biding of one’s time and preoccupation with the preservation of the soul, and a lower overall motivation to engage creatively in the natural world. Though devout Christians are now fewer in number, as a percent of our total if not in absolute numbers, we should be ourselves attentive to how much these old ideas are still with us, and potentially still within us.
Other world religions take or foster a similarly negative view of the natural world and our basic human nature, as a foundation for recommended devotion and discipline to transcend or repress our basic failings, feelings, and corporeal existence. Without these devotions and disciplines, it is thought that we would devolve into our primal human nature, an undesirable nature that is thoughtless, asocial if not antisocial, and even treacherous and murderous. Again, the focus and effect is often a tendency to turn away from nature and worldly life, and to direct one’s attention toward a metaphysical and seemingly unproblematic afterlife. The effect is to reduce creative engagement and focus life on narrow social and inherited scripting, to make life more artificial and insular.
Even more agnostic or secular schools of thought from our history – Confucianism, Shintoism, Platonism, and Stoicism as examples – advocate the pursuit of disciplined and highly patterned approaches to life to overcome presumed basic flaws in our nature. This widespread view of our unacculturated human nature is remarkable, suggesting an overwhelming pervasiveness of this outlook in earlier times (and perhaps still in our time). We can conclude that the general acceptance of this view was either true in fact or a common prejudice of writers of these times, or that such views were actively favored by cultural selection forces and brought into history. In hindsight, and assuming the undesirability of our seeming naturalness was a common truth of earlier times, we might question if such flaws are in our basic nature as people or in our human nature amidst the poverty and insecurity of early forms of settled life, and thus only a case of a particular environment and historical epoch reflected in and through us.
Closer to our time, post-Renaissance European philosophers struggled to find the optimal (but still needed) quantity of state and social coercion over individuals and our basic nature, which was again still generally viewed as basically selfish and anti-social. One of them, Thomas Hobbes, famously hypothesized that in our natural state, human life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Given the inexactitude of this portrait of natural life (especially its indifference to how babies might be made and become adults in such a state), this is a telling pronouncement about how generations of people before us thought about others and, no doubt, themselves too. It is easy to imagine how a self-fulfilling cycle of negative belief and guarded action could be created and sustained by a cultural mindset such as this.
Other and later writers of this period of growing prosperity, notably Rousseau, proposed that life in nature was actually rustic and peaceful, though only the most fanciful of these Romantics advocated a dismantling of social controls. Ostensibly, this was only because of the corrupting force of civilized life, but more likely they intuited that chaos would ensue without some new or restored form of principledness at the individual level.
More recently, in our own modern times, the psychologist Sigmund Freud and his followers looked at human nature primarily through clinical practice, and envisioned dark and deeply anti-social impulses within us struggling to find form in contemporary life. In doing so, they may well have helped to perpetuate the tangible existence of these forces in their patient’s lives and society more generally. But others psychologists – including Carl Jung, Erik Eriksson, and Abraham Maslow – viewed our natural impulses far more favorably, as a creative force aspiring to create order, form, and meaning in the world. They thus began a new and increasingly influential wave of thinking about our human nature that continues in our time and includes Ellen Langer.
The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche came before Freud and these other twentieth century psychologists, but was far ahead of his time. For me, he is still underappreciated despite his posthumous fame, and thus deserves to be treated as a true modern and considered here. Nietzsche saw our human nature in a new, stunning, and highly integrated way, one that is both compelling and challenging to people more than one hundred years later. Nietzsche suggested that our nature was creative and artful (breaking the ancient dichotomy between nature and artifice), necessarily so first for survival in wild nature and then for satisfying life in civilization, and now potentially in ways that are even self-liberating and transcendental. But he also saw our nature as capable of great banality and insensitivity – of only rough creation and low artfulness, and lacking what Langer might call an mindful or creative ethos – especially in the aftermath of the decline of earlier (and what he saw as quite creative) religious and artistic systems of thought and life, and with the rise of unartful pragmatism and soulless materialism.
For Nietzsche, his admonition for modern people of the future (which is you and me) was to guard against historical and present-day imperatives of all sorts, to not “discover oneself too soon” and thus become locked in static, conditioned, self-perpetuating, and unliving or unchanging conceptions of oneself and the forms and directions one’s life might take. Nietzsche advised us to avoid fixed opinion, to live directly and consciously in our lives as others have advised us before him, and equally to seek the strength for life that is open-ended, artistic, and even fearless. Nietzsche’s ideas represent a startling reversal and synthesis of centuries of earlier European and world thinking, at least about our present nature if not our innate and original nature. His ideas began a chain of events that spawned the Existentialist movement and still reverberate in philosophy and psychology today, even with the enormous impact of his contemporary Darwin and if in more measured and pragmatic ways.
There is, of course, now adequate science to suggest that most writers of the Enlightenment period, a name only partially deserved, were at least a little bit right and a little bit wrong. We now have good reason to believe that our natural state was indeed short and periodically nasty, as Hobbes and others assumed, but more generally that it afforded life for our wild ancestors that was rich and compelling, and frequently joyous and emotionally abundant, as Rousseau and other Romantics hoped, even amidst the many challenges of life in nature and without the many comforts of settled life (and the many fears for their loss). We know that natural human life was in society and not alone, in the form of small migrating, trading, and intermarrying bands, that there was warfare on this scale, but also that there were cultivated arts (hunting, self-defense, story-telling, and social ritual), as well as extensive systems of knowledge and teaching about the environment.
In our time, because of the advance of science and industrial society, we now have the potential to include new, more exact, and still increasing knowledge of ourselves and our nature in the way that we view ourselves. We have the opportunity to move past our past and inherited conditioning about our own (experientially and scientifically accessible) nature. We perhaps even can create more positive and equally sustaining cycles of human self-belief and affirming action, in our lives today and for the future.
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As we consider these different, sometime opposing, but generally negative historical ideas about our natural human state, about natural human life and our natural human mind, we might feel an inclination to step back from this long debate and simply consider the people and world around us today, even if this is a more limited span of inquiry, to see what truths we can offer ourselves about ourselves.
Initially, a survey of our modern world provides only limited help in deciding or navigating between the different human self-images from our past. About us, after all, we can find rapture and rapaciousness, magnanimity and murder, caring and contempt, not unlike similar and similarly varying conditions in our settled past (though there is now substantial data suggesting that modern life is far less inclined towards violence and these negative attributes). Which then is the real us? What is our true nature? Are we naturally brutish or benevolent? Are we potentially both of these things, depending on circumstance, and thus without a strong underlying nature? And how much around us is a reflection of some basic character of ours, and how much might be the result of older patterns of thinking, ones that still work to shape us today?
I have written before that the overriding sensibility of our modern times is perhaps best described as one of stress and anxiety, for many if not most of us, of our being collectively caught on the now self-powering and accelerating treadmill that is modern industrial life. In our unprecedented times, we are preoccupied with our times and often in precedented ways – with status and social decorum, with wealth and power and control of our personal environment, and with a wide and increasing variety of extrinsic preoccupations and rewards. Curiously and perhaps revealingly, we live this way despite widespread material abundance, on a scale only dreamed of before our time, and from social conditions where the pursuit of higher aspirations and more intrinsic needs might naturally now ensue (as it has for some people but hardly yet many).
I might add that our modern preoccupations – our pervasive attitudes and behaviors, our cultural conceptions of the proper objects for our focus – are reflected in and likely strongly reinforced by our modern mass media. Our new electronic media aggrandize the icons and demons of modern life, in ways that are unparalleled, compelling and limiting, and with an effect that few still appreciate fully (even as data and correlates amass). Paradoxically, many of us find hours each day for and thus befriend our electronic mass media, despite our often having harried schedules, overwhelming personal commitments, and frustrated desires for more compelling life (which often include the wish for for more time for deeper relationships and the pursuit of new personal expression and fulfillment). It is, in fact, to this often thoughtless, uncontrolled, and depersonalized state of modern life, to our obsessions and fixations with the often unquestioned social icons and demons around us, and to our many opportunities to live beyond this way and in new ways, that Langer and other psychologists of our time principally and emphatically write.
In our own time, it is empirically true that we do generally feel overwhelmed and out of control, even as our safety and full range of natural needs are now quite easily met in physical fact. It is true that people are often stressed and angry and, on examination, frequently have only convenient or superficial rather than definitive objects for their anger and hostility. And it is true, also on examination, that people often can provide only rationalizations for their attitudes and behaviors. Our modern personal aims and goals can be surprisingly flimsy and ill-considered, even in middle adulthood and even as we devote many hours of the day and decades of our lives to them. For me, our pervasive feelings of stress and unease amidst the new affluence and sudden freedom of modern life seem like a general and collective response of frustration – but not the only response available to us – to our new and emerging world of nearly unlimited material wealth and personal choice, one where work is increasingly done by machines and where we will soon be left free, to be free.
Our feelings of stress and anxiety amidst our new wealth and freedom, which can be seen in microcosm in the personal experiences of public lottery winners, is perhaps quite revealing about our true nature as people. Such feelings, I think, are a form of existential dread, though in this case not of the option of falling from a precipice but of soaring from it or moving as one pleases in the world (thus moving in only one way). This is perhaps a first historical and innate reaction to our unexpected new world of too many options and opportunities, of too many tangible objects and imaginable experiences within reach, of too many things which require too much focus to pursue, all of which we have too little time and attention for simply because of this same great diversity around us. All this is our human nature, placed in a strange and nearly entirely new environment, admittedly with much inherited momentum and influence from our past, and a natural experiment that can teach us a great deal about ourselves.
If we consider our own personal natures, amidst the new whir and vertigo of modernity, I suspect that few of us feel either distinctly rapturous or rapacious, even if we are apt to think of others in this second way and approach unfamiliar people negatively and guardedly, as caldrons potentially waiting to boil over and onto us. There are exceptions among us, of course. There are people who have a special openness to others, either as a consequence of a personal insight that is likely unfamiliar to us, or through the cruder mechanism of ideology, which is now all-too-familiar in modern times. There is also still real evil in the world today – especially where there is still poverty – troubled and frightened people bent on irrational destruction and isolation amidst this extraordinary and extraordinarily open time, even at the cost of their own eventual self-destruction (perhaps believing that eternal safekeeping waits and not yet seeing the paradox of this condition). What evil there is of course now has profound new tools and opportunities to express itself, as does every other human capacity and inclination, and then to be captured in this expression and beamed electronically around the world, for everyone to see and feel, wherever we may be and amidst whatever might otherwise have our attention.
Importantly, to complete our survey of modern times and historical influences, we should also highlight the fact that since childhood, most of us have been actively acculturated and encouraged, to varying degrees, to be peaceful but competitive. We have been encouraged to pursue and treat as indispensable the icons of modern society in a seeming competition, to watch out for our interests and keep up with our rivals for the ostensibly limited number of vital icons, to in fact treat and think of others as rivals and our world as one of actual or potential scarcity, and thereby to perceive others and the world negatively and fearfully (and thus in a pre-conditioned and inattentive way). Most of us, in fact, do worry about others and the risks and lost opportunities they may represent to us, rather than the new opportunities they may also present and despite the endless personal opportunities we all have in modern life. And we often do still so carry a sense of scarcity in ourselves and go about our lives feeling somehow threatened and insecure, even as the world becomes abundant, liberated, and secure in ways our forbearers only could imagine
Our human nature today is influenced at least in part from the force of this socialization and our inherited ideas, since there is a discernable correlation between personal upbringing and outlook, very likely making us more competitive in behavior and perspective than we might be and objectively should be. But innate aspects of our nature are also revealed in the natural experiment of our time, especially when one looks beneath our competitive ideology to find our seemingly irrational and quite common sense of frustration, stress, and aimlessness amidst the historical dream and prosperity that is our modern reality. I personally believe that most of us still irrationally feel and experience life in a stressed and attenuated way primarily because of historical influences and patterns of socialization, living less openly and generously than we might like to and now can. From our upbringing and the force of our environment, we focus excessively and often unconsciously on objects and objective measures, and treat others and even ourselves as objects and in a more depersonalized and instrumental way than might be possible today, or in truth is even ever optimal.
That said, we are not blank slates. We have a specific and evolved neurology and human psyche, ones that are different from and yet not wholly unrelated to other social animals. In seeking higher and more attentive life, or in understanding our natural state, the force, limitations and opportunities inherent in our biological nature cannot be overlooked. In the end, we can never be other than ourselves. We can never truly overcome ourselves, only those aspects of us that are less optimal, rational, and desirable. But it is always still us who desires, who aims and optimizes against our human preferences, even as our preferences evolve and however they may be influenced by others and our experiences.
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It is amidst this backdrop of modern life and earlier ideas about our nature as people, and with an emerging new scientific appreciation of both malleability the and innateness of our human perspective and behavior, that Langer and other contemporary psychologists now suggest our natural state is a creative one, that our natural mind seeks to be creatively and positively engaged in the world. They suggest, with compelling evidence and contrary to centuries of thinking, that we are not naturally nasty and brutish, that we do not naturally objectify the world and others, and even that we are naturally caring and sensitive at our core. With all that is changing and shifting around us today, and with the weight of history pressing upon us from our past, how can we know if this new thinking is really the truth? And what would happen if we took this idea for a time on faith, as we did for so long the very opposite conclusion?
To begin to guide our discussion toward a compelling conclusion, even if this conclusion is an open-ended one and in the spirit advocating new, creative, and engaged living, I would have us look back once again, but just briefly, to entertain one more perspective on the questions before us. There was another time in our past, one that was not unlike our own in some ways and that I alluded to already. This was a time when artisans and philosophers and democracy flourished, though only for some, in small city-states dotted along the deep blue of the Aegean coast, rather than on every coast and for nearly everyone as it increasingly does in our time.
Perhaps the most famous saying, from the ostensibly classical but strangely contemporary Greco-Roman period, was the short, two-word inscription atop the temple at Delphi, which said simply, Know Thyself. For many teachers and philosophers, this remains the most essential guidance we can give ourselves, in our time and in any time, to understand our human nature in general and to open us up to more attentive life in particular. It implies that we have an innate human nature and that there are lessons for us waiting within it, lessons that allow us to better understand not just ourselves but perhaps our times and their often imbalancing influences on us too.
Self-knowledge is the direct means we all have to know our varying nature, and to discover our deepest and most important needs as people in our vagaries. Self-awareness is the means to allow us to live more joyously and beneficently in our lives, to live even without the need for social coercion or the prospect of external or eternal reward. It is guidance that comes to us from a dynamic, unprecedented in its time, and eclectic period of human history, one that is unique and yet like our own in important ways. To know oneself is a supremely humane imperative, and a deceptively simple one. In truth, self-knowledge requires sustained work and lifelong practice. It involves attentive and mindful living as both a means and end, and I think is in the spirit of what Langer suggests for us all.
Between the many schools of thought and approaches to life from our history, with their many conceptions of our natural human state and inherent human nature, and amidst the enormous material and emotional influences of modernity, there exists each of us in our lives today – simply, individually, and intimately as we are as people. At our core, we are all alive in our lives in a potentially most personal and transparent way, apart from our times and able to witness our life moment by moment and feeling by feeling if we want. We are all situated in our lived and ultimately indescribable human reality, regardless of the circumstances of our life, and are much closer to our human nature than any theory or description can be. As intelligent and sensing people, we have and are an eye at the center of any storm of culture or ideology or circumstance. We each have the option and opportunity of knowing ourselves – simply, intimately, and mindfully – at all times and in all matters. Such was the seemingly enigmatic but lasting and insightful wisdom of the oracle at Delphi.
If we can step back from the world moving around us, and even from the world moving within us, we begin to teach ourselves to observe the world and ourselves more attentively, and to learn to examine with this eye in the storm that is our self, that which we are most basically. Through the process of observing and attending to our surroundings and ourselves, patiently and open-endedly as we live in the world over time, we find first that the world can take on a vivid and intimate quality, one that we often fail to perceive when we are absorbed in acting and thinking. We then discover that we are much like the world in this regard, that we are unusually and even surprisingly calm, attentive, and intimate in some central part of us. And then, and perhaps unexpectedly, we find that that we are even playful and surprisingly creative at this centermost point of us.
It is, in fact, by reaching this central point of ourselves that we can more fully understand and can more truly become ourselves. It is in this central and attending part of ourselves, which has a definable location in our brains, that we become more centered in and aware of ourselves. Here, we are less likely to be pulled and distracted by others and our socialization, less likely to be inattentive to the world and our thinking and thus less than our true selves. From our center, we become more authentic as people, truer in our knowledge and expression of who we are. With this knowledge, inseparable from us once experienced, we gain new confidence and appreciation of ourselves, and can finally become simply alive in our lives – alive in our lives for their own sake.
This deeper and more intimate connection to the self, this discovery of our ability to find our ultimate center and to control our attention, begins to reveal something fundamental, ancient, and universal about our true nature as people.
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As we examine ourselves today, few of us would claim to personally feel sustained bliss and benevolence, or to harbor lasting feelings of rage and rapaciousness. We are mostly somewhere in between most of the time, and often spend our time caught up in familiar moments and situations, with their familiar and associated thoughts and feelings.
Our contemporary nature, at least, is quite often more about feelings of pressure and anxiety, perhaps with a general and increasing inclination to help rather than hurt others, even though we still may be apt to think of others as existing in an opposite state of mind. We all feel the stimulation and imperatives of the new age we are in and often, perhaps too often, follow the competitive scripting we have been socialized to live by. The result is that we use much of our time and personal focus attending to our material and social interests, as people did in earlier times, but now in the vast maze of categories and pre-occupations that conventional life is today. We often do this in an unconscious and thus unchosen manner, and can live thinking and feeling more narrowly than we might, more immersed and caught in our life and times. We sometimes intuit that we should change our approach and live more openly and creatively, but may struggle to know how or unwilling to begin the work of change.
In the process of adapting, or more rightly yielding, to the imperatives of our times, we naturally constrict and reorganize our awareness to align with the demands and structure of our environment, partitioning and reshaping our full and more integrated human self and attentive awareness for functional efficiency. This is a readily observable change (subjectively and through scanning) that comes over us and our awareness when we move from attentive sensing or reflection to action in tasks. Driving a car, watching a video feed, listening to a lecture, taking an examination, or writing a paragraph are common and easily experienced examples of this transformation of our awareness, but are only one of many and part of our more general pattern of life in the often unnatural settings of industrial society (with obvious parallels in pre-industrial society and pre-civilized life). The effect is for us to live away from our attentive center and to lose ourselves in tasks and activities, our environmental and cognitive imperatives, and our roles and social persona, in a way that was likely less apt to happen in nature (or at least that need happen now).
This re-patterning of awareness (and then our choices and lives), when it overrides and narrows our life perspective and keeps us from the experience of our attentive and reflecting center, is a good deal of what Ellen Langer writes about, and against, in her books. To live amidst externally or self-imposed tasks and imperatives, we not only alter and distort ourselves, we also generally abbreviate, objectify, and simplify our surroundings, including other people, for the sake of functionality and timeliness. We sometimes know we are doing this and sometimes must do this to complete a task, but very often we alter self and world unconsciously and throughout a waking life of moving from task to task and from imperative to imperative (whether in work or leisure). If we live a busy and unreflective life, as many of us do today, we almost never fully appreciate the consequences of this more expedient, but far less mindful and engaged, narrowing of our awareness and abstraction of the world. Ironically, as I mentioned before, the aims and imperatives to which we do devote ourselves often prove quite poorly considered and even unfulfilling once we do finally reflect on and engage them fully.
This alteration of ourselves and our awareness, and the simplification of our environment, for efficiency is a partly conditioned, partly innate and automatic, and often far less than ideal response to the general material affluence and new open-endedness that modern life now affords most of us. However common, a highly pre-occupied and scripted or structured life is only one way, and unlikely the best and most fulfilling way, for us to approach the new and vast frameworks of choice and opportunity imbedded in industrial affluence (including their potential to cause stress and disintegration of the self, inhibiting our likelihood of attentiveness when it may be most needed). Our lapse into scripts and excessive structure is especially poignant now, given the new and potentially liberating human choices that the security and freedom an affluent society creates for us, if we are able to approach our environment and choices more intimately, attentively, and creatively.
Without a strategy of attentiveness and creative choice based on compelling personal values, we are apt to experience sustained anxiety and aimlessness in the freedom and enticements of modernity, as so many people young and old do today. From this disengaged and unmotivated state, we may then gradually and passively adopt or coalesce into one of many modern routines or archetypes, more commonly known today as personalities or lifestyles, simply to reduce short-term stress and avoid the modern “problem” of excessive choice. In this frequent pattern of our times, one that includes but is not limited to occupational choices, we produce an adopted life that is filled but largely tangential to and not chosen by the self. In this process, we can see how inattention and lack of connection to the self, perhaps through an educational and home experience centered on tasks and vocational competency rather than uncovering values and cultivating identity, can reinforce inattentiveness and disengagement and lead to far narrower and unconsciously patterned life than we might first realize. A generation ago, psychologists wrote of the growing dilemma of excessive freedom and leisure in modern society, and how this was likely to undermine our health and well-being. With hindsight, I think it is more correct to frame this problem as one of inadequate attention and engagement amidst historically unprecedented freedom and opportunities for new human life.
Curiously, people of earlier times often responded to the exact opposite stresses and conditions as ours – to the gnawing demands of poverty, insecurity, and repressive society – in a way very similar to the pattern I have described, by simplifying their outlook on the environment and relegating themselves into narrow and often inherited or convenient roles, as we so often do, but in their case it was to mitigate the much greater material adversity and precariousness of life in pre-modern civilization. This is instructive and highly suggestive of a key source of our many decidedly paradoxical and suboptimal modern behaviors and attitudes, especially since this abridgment of the self into narrow roles frequently disappeared in the past among the affluent (and those who were otherwise self-possessed) of our most dynamic pre-industrial democracies. The case is quite strong that our modern tendency toward highly scripted and pattered life is partly inherited from pre-industrial society and unconsciously conditioned today, especially given its poor fit with the opportunities and resources of our times – though these opportunities do require effort and are still inhibited by our general conditions, circularly at least partly a consequence of our conditioning, and by our innate human tendency to “satisfice,” to think and act with too short a time-horizon, especially when we are not reflective.
When I talk about the heightened stresses, pervasive anxieties, and passive acceptance of scripting in our time, since they are so incongruous to how life might now be and is for some in our new external conditions, I should add that our current condition and contemporary nature is perhaps only a temporary phase and a period of transition from earlier, pre-modern human life. It is important to note that an emerging feeling and sensibility in our own time is a new and now growing search for meaning, values, and even new social relations and community in our lives, even if these feelings are sill nascent, derided by many, and hardly yet a universal condition. There equally appears to a marked trend toward cooperative living (including its often overlooked form of industrial commerce and trading), a fundamental reduction in the level of human violence and aggression from historical times, as well as unprecedented new levels of interest in our health and well-being and that of the natural world.
If these aspirations are not reflective of our basic human nature, they are at least a manifestation of our nature placed in these technologically-advanced and materially affluent times – our nature put in conditions where our security and self-possession are fostered. There was a period in our history, again by contrast, when community and even family, and certainly wild nature, were seen far more negatively than today, as coercive, constraining, and often threatening entities in our generally much less secure and more constrained lives. Unlike now, we typically feared and despised people from outside our immediate social group, celebrated war and the conquest of others, and considered our propensity for violence a virtue. This may seem strange now, since they are attitudes and behaviors that are no longer valued and selected in our industrial world, but this was the general condition of people at least throughout much of our settled past and across most parts of the world. Since our attitudes have changed so suddenly with our changed conditions, we are right to suspect that these old ideas are not wholly innate and of our underlying nature, and at least partly circumstantial.
As I suggested already, before industrialization, people regularly fanaticized about the type of freedom and independence we now have, or now can have. Then, in their innermost thoughts, they often sought life apart from village and parish, apart from repression and the threat of violence and war around them. They envisioned wealth and power as enabling freedom and safety (which now appears to be true only when a universal condition), and individual isolation from the threats to our happiness that were community and the environment. Since many people still think and act at least partially in this way, but often in an inattentive and unexamined way (which we learn when we press ourselves to explain our beliefs and choices), we again can suspect that many of these earlier ideas are still imbedded in the fabric of society and the inherited conditioning of people today, despite our changed circumstances. We may well find that our general thinking and valuations will gradually change to align with the new human reality of our time, and to the extent it does, will reveal much about our human nature and its innate and environmental components.
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What conclusions, then, might this survey of both historical ideas and modern life tell us about our basic human nature? Are we at heart angels, devils, or simply mortals?
For me, one of the most important points to emerge from the contrasts of our history and modernity is the idea that our basic human nature varies and can undergo fairly substantial changes with alternation of our individual and general circumstances (no doubt within a discoverable range), even against the gradient of environment and with social selection forces actively conditioning for consistency. We can see this is the slow but now discernable trend of our changing and more cultivated and open modern industrial sensibility arising out of the earlier and more belligerent cognitive and life patterns that came with millennia of pre-industrial hardship, just as it did in earlier conditions of advanced free society (though then only for some).
We can also see this changeability of our nature in individuals too, and our capacity to substantially remake ourselves and revalue the world and others when we ourselves are removed from a constraining environment and cultivated toward reflective life. We can see it too in our ability to be conditioned for automatic and patterned behavior, as is often still the result of even contemporary schools, and even for shocking brutality, as is the case in military conscripts and inner city gang members. Instructively, this same changeability in nature is present in many higher animals too, as when zoologists befriend and live intimately with wild or orphaned animals or when domestic animals of different species are encouraged to respect the sentience of one another and then develop a mutual affection (recently I walked passed a small farm with the extraordinary scene of a dog, a cat, and a hen inches apart, sunning themselves together within a fenced enclosure).
We should thus surmise that our human nature lies on a continuum, ranging from our potential for extreme selfishness and objectification of the world, all the way to our capacity for acts of great personal intimacy and sensitivity in the world, with a world and history of human gradations between. In knowing ourselves, and in knowing our history and the shape and bounds of our variable nature, we can see that context, environment, and culture matter a great deal, that we are remarkably different people in different times and settings. Our innate biological nature may fixed and we bounded by it, but this nature is fixed and we are bounded in a complex way, one that renders us both highly variable and often quite shapeable by environment, and also inherently capable of individual transformation though conscious and independent personal choice.
Put almost any of us in the extreme environment of a war zone, and we see Thomas Hobbes’ perspective realized (who wrote during a time of war, and against war). We see the dark potential in our human nature for alienation from and objectification of our self and surroundings and for capricious and instrumental violence when under extreme stress. In an odd variation of this setting, place us in unique luxury, accustom us to fear for this luxury and socialize us to think that the alternative is chaos and brutal poverty, and we are apt to become obsessed, to act rashly and cause our own unhappiness and even our undoing, as Shakespeare successfully took as a theme on more than one occasion. This second state of brutality – of highly unequal wealth and advantage relative to others – was of course the condition of tribal chiefs and aristocrats throughout our settled history, and those that remain now in the world, with a consistent and reliable result: a vicious cycle of fear and the regular use of pre-emptive violence and deviousness to reduce threats from others of similar or more disadvantaged standing.
Beyond this extreme of either general or personal conditions of brutality and war with others, there are at least two additional sides of our human nature. Both of these important expressions of our nature occur when there is relative peace and openness to others, and can and do reoccur across many human contexts. In one case, when we are placed in settings where love, attentiveness, nurturing, and cooperation are the pervasive norm, and especially where material pursuits and status are downplayed and put in service and defense of cooperative community and its norms, people return these cultivated behaviors and attitudes, and the condition of cooperative human life proves quite stable (the case of long-enduring religious orders and modern cooperative organizations are good examples of this, both notably invoking and benefiting from strong moral emotions that likely are a hallmark of all sustaining cooperation).
In this ideal state of human affairs, we live with others transparently and committedly, actively accentuating common interests and encouraging a communitarian ethos, and the arrangement can prove highly synergistic, beneficial and satisfying to its members. Importantly, when we live in a sustained cooperative and nurturing context, people generally need and want much less materially than in alternative conditions, in part because of acculturation and because their generally quite supportive environment creates less stress and need for compensating consumption and elevated status to affirm one’s worth. However, in cooperative life we often produce more materially, through coordinated and communicative action and a more optimal level of investment in public goods, as we can see in regulated industrial life but likely at any level of technology. Cooperative life can thus circularly enrich and secure people and further reinforce this much-sought human context.
Many attempts have been made at this form of life in the past, from extended and multi-headed families to the religious groups I mentioned to schemes involving whole nations. Some attempts have been enormously successful and others disastrous. Perhaps our central learning, especially as we seek to make this condition widespread amidst industrial life, is that all members of the cooperative community must substantially benefit from the arrangement, since the alternative encourages anti-social behavior and the need for proportionate coercion, together creating the conditions for compounding instability. That said, the prospect of coercion and even ostracism is likely endemic to all cooperative state, whatever their scale, to maintain naturally varying individual behavior within threshold conditions.
Outbreaks of peace of course need not lead to widespread cooperation and nurturing life, at least initially, as our own time clearly shows. If we look at our history, we can see that peace has often more likely fostered something less than these ideal human conditions. If there is an ongoing threat to security, or the fact or perception of material scarcity, or inadequate universal benefit from and transparency of cooperative behavior, a state of partial cooperation can emerge. In other words, a state of life that is partially uncooperative, one that is more generally competitive, objectifying, and unsatisfying than our ideal conditions – even as such competitive states must be significantly bounded and regulated, and the individuals in them substantially nurtured and coerced, to perpetuate and contain these conditions.
Historically, states of peaceful competition have been the general norm in the absence of war, but thus may be viewed as still related and a companion to conditions of war and at least a proximate contributor to war’s eventual return. Peaceful competition is a generally stable and often enduring human condition but historically has always eventually descended into conditions of imbalance and war, notably when there is inadequate regulation and a marked decline in the relative parity of benefit among its participants. Instability in fact, can be shown to be endemic to all but the most tightly regulated competitive human systems, since these systems tend to heighten natural material and social inequality over time, leading to class stratification and reduced social cohesion, with proportionate rises in aggression and instability. For this reason, in our time especially but in all times of general peace, a deliberate move to cooperative and more nurturing life should be actively encouraged. In both cases, excessive competition and anti-social behavior must be managed, but cooperative life affords the prospect of a much more enriching and sustaining environment for its members, as well as a far greater margin of safety before conditions of war are threatened.
To highlight these dynamics of our human condition and expose the totality of our human nature, consider an experiment that places people in a wild setting to better understand our basic nature, which we actually now can do to some degree through computer simulations and through inquiry into the natural experiments contained in our world history. In such an experiment in human nature, we likely would find one of three general outcomes: 1) the formation of the cooperative networks I described, with high persistency and enormous benefit to their members, 2) a lapse into very selfish conditions that quickly lead to despotism and then conditions of factional and frequent low-grade wars for an extended time, or 3) a condition between these two states, either directly or after a period of war or cooperation, where people are generally fair to one another, but live guardedly and competitively in important ways, where people are not fully cooperatively and are not transparent to one another – a state that risks war but that is not war, but also not true peace either.
Based on the results of computer simulations, the direction in which experimental groups will tend appear to depend on several factors, including the relative scarcity of resources in the programming (a wonderful metaphor), the early direction or cultural tendency of the group toward or away from cooperation, and the overall number and density of people and thus the degree to which relative and absolute benefit can be assessed. These and other factors of course interact and can drive a tipping toward either the long-term cooperative or warring states, or to the hybrid third condition that we might call peaceful co-existence, competition, or stalemate. I would suggest that the idea of stalemate probably still best describes the state of much of the industrialized world today, neither the worst possible nor best possible of times, but we should remain hopeful and do see signs that our unprecedented times will lead to the more stable and enriching condition of human cooperation (especially as historical feelings of scarcity abate, universal benefit is promoted, and as science enables more enlightened social policies aimed at fostering human well-being).
For me, the issue of security, and of earlier cultural influences if insecurity is largely one of perception, is quite important and perhaps the central determinant of how our general and individual human nature will be expressed. With security in a broad sense, we are of course made self-possessed and free in practical terms to pursue our life as we want, whether on impulse and based on scripts or on reflection and from motivating values. Our freedom might take the form of seeking blissful retreat, as many imagined in the past and as some do today, for example through drug use. Or it might involve our gravitating to specific personas or lifestyles that semi-consciously, and thus only semi-creatively, solve the problem of personal choice and unstructured time, as many do today.
Both of these outcomes might be viewed correctly as forms of personal stalemate, even if they occur amidst cooperative and nurturing life. But if we live in secure conditions over an extended time and do not destroy our health, in open society and thus with at least some encouragement of our self-realization, I suspect that most people will naturally tend to the more attentive, creative, personalized, and engaged lives that Langer and other psychologists now advocate for us, and equally to promote more cooperative and socially beneficial states of human life as well.
How a general move to attentive and cooperative life might take place and how long it might take, as conditions of insecurity and scarcity are held suspended for modern people and as these benefits are extended to include all people in the world, are important questions, though not fully relevant to our particular discussion and the prospect of change in our individual lives today. I suspect that our modern evolution will continue as it has already – as a gradual progression toward more open-ended and engaging individual choices of lifestyles, occupations, pastimes, and values, until a breakthrough point is reached and predominantly self-created individual life ensues and encourages this progression in others.
As human life becomes more compellingly chosen and then principally self-created, today and in the future as in the past, we should recognize that the self-created life is of a different and more individualized form than even the most progressive forms of patterned choices. Self-created life is shift, experientially and in objectively measurable terms, where life is manifested from our attentive center and shaped improvisationally using our imagination, rather than selected from existing patterns of choice and expectation in the world (even as the created life uses them as media, but always in a process of attentive and novel creation in one’s circumstances). In the vernacular of today, we might characterize and clearly set apart the created live as free-styling instead of simply life-styling. Thus the created life is truly art – in this case the art of living, but art nonetheless and intrinsically valuable in its own right and no longer life as a means. But the created life (rather simply the creative life) is natural too – it is the state we naturally tend toward when left secure and self-possessed, and given time and opportunity to cultivate ourselves. Created life is thus a state where the ends of the seeming dichotomy of artifice and nature collide and become one.
I have suggested that we are now already free of physical scarcity and substantial threats to our security in many parts of the world. While some today understand and have begun to act on this new reality of our time, most of us do not yet intuitively feel this objective truth, let alone have an palpable sense of abundance proportionate with our modern circumstances and those likely to come (as technology and innovation continue to multiply and drive exponential change in our lives). Without this new and more realistic sensibility, without greater attentiveness to the world and a movement away from historical patterns of thinking and feeling, we are far less likely to entertain the idea that we might now live cooperatively and primarily to pursue human self-fulfillment, to live in intrinsic appreciation of life and the world and nature itself. We are thus also still less apt to love and nurture the people around us (and even ourselves) as we might, as we perhaps already know we can and suspect we should at some level. This change in our thinking and lives of course is the great opportunity of our time and the central challenge to all of us living in the modern age – to cooperate with one another and cultivate human life in fundamentally new ways.
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Sifting through these many ideas, which point to the variability of our human nature and to the importance of context and environment to our individual lives and how our underlying human nature is finally expressed, I am led to the conclusion that our natural mind, or more rightly our natural center, is indeed an engaged and creative one, as Langer suggests. By this, I mean more than the simple conclusion that we creatively construct the world and our personal reality in our minds and neurology, which we do, and then creatively engage in life to varying degrees based on our constructs, which we do as well. In agreeing with Langer, I instead mean to get at an underlying truth that contains all such personal constructs and expressions of our nature, however creative or banal they may be, as well all potential social, psychological and environmental influences.
Because of our human nature – because we are naturally intelligent, ideating, reflective, valuing, and choosing beings – we have an innate ability to step back from all constructs and contexts, wherever they may lie on the spectrum of potential human conditions, and reassert our individuality and autonomy in new ways, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. We can get perspective, in other words, and more – we can live a created life. As I observed before and has been known for centuries, we can use the power of perspective to gradually re-center ourselves in ourselves and then consciously cultivate ourselves in attentive and more personal new ways, at any time or place in our lives. I have hypothesized that all or most people will eventually do this, given a prolonged extension of our modern conditions of freedom and prosperity, and the more essential human tendency toward learning and exploration they work to engender.
Our opportunity for attentive life – of life carefully re-centered, examined, cultivated, and lived for its own sake – is an important and universal aspect of our human condition, and our discovery of it reveals the full scope and range of our human nature. In truth, attentive life can be realized in or created from any individual condition or context. In this sense, while attentive life can be reliably fostered, in the end it can be and can only be self-created and self-perpetuated. And while such a state is thus always individualized and the result of a particular person, it still always leads to the common and universal condition I have outlined: the extraordinary finality and open-endedness that is conscious and consciously-created human life. Langer is right to use her considerable skills and position and acclaim to remind and encourage us that this is our ultimate and most natural of aspiration as people – to live the examined life in Aristotle’s words – and to do it in a way that is fresh, contemporary, and engaging, and reminiscent in aim of the work of Viktor Frankel a generation ago.
Our dynamic human nature begins, but does not end, with a tendency to adapt to and often unconsciously reinforce the specific social conditions and contexts we find ourselves in, I suspect for both for people living in wild nature and amidst settled life. These social or external conditions can fall into the three general categories we have discussed: conditions that are quite good, quite terrible, or more mediocre, a coexistence or stalemate. In a time of general attentiveness and cooperative nurturing, we will likely nurture and be attentive in turn, and are fortunate if this is our condition and are apt to become aware of our good fortune (though we need not be). In a brutal setting, of poverty or vastly unequal power, we are likely to become brutal ourselves, as history and many modern human experiments have shown, but in truth we can still escape brutality and live in an examined and intrinsically meaningful way, through new awareness and self-created life, as Frankel’s remarkable life and learning amidst war and persecution taught us.
Most of us today are caught between these alternatives, in the middle human condition of generally peaceful competition I have described. We may suspect, and I suspect correctly, that a higher form of human living is possible for us personally and for people generally, especially in our new age. Langer correctly points to the fact that we do not have to wait for a larger social transformation to more advanced society to live in more advanced ways today – we can each already begin to live in a higher, more cooperative, nurturing, and attentive way already, and thus begin to create life in an advanced society on our own, one person at a time. We begin this process by becoming more centered in our lives and attentive to our surroundings, by considering and creating how we will live, moment by moment, and by engaging others cooperatively in this alternative approach to life, an approach that is both old and new in our times.
In our world today, millions of people still seek escape from brutality in its many forms: political, social, economic, and interpersonal. They seek basic freedom and security for themselves and those in their care. If they can escape brutality, often their later feelings are a mix of both relief and disappointment. Interviewed refuges of war or oppression, living in the industrialized world, often report having envisioned a future life that is more than what they found actually exists in the modern world. They are surprised by and often have realized the mediocrity or middle state of human affairs that can come from freedom, affluence, and coexistence alone. This is a lesson for us all in the industrial world today. Though we are born free of brutality and secure and assured that we can meet our physiological needs, we in fact must each do more than simply flow with our times to live in the higher and more compelling way that is available to us – individually and collectively, and in all times and conditions. Ironically, for us, this likely does not involve a major change in the physical fact of life, simply an adjustment in our approach and more enlightened social policies (to make our time truly one of Enlightenment).
Today, with advanced technology and the prospect of material security for all, the primary obstacle to attentive, creative, cooperative, more satisfying, and higher human life, as Langer and others have pointed out, is our own irrationally, our own potential for mindlessly living out unconscious, unexamined, and suboptimal scripts, are not of our own making or enlightened choosing. This tendency in our time often takes the form of our clinging to outdated and ultimately empty, but still real and compelling, thoughts and feelings of scarcity, insecurity, and necessity in our lives, our acting from inertia, inheritance, and fear rather than self-awareness, reflection, valuation, and creative personal choice.
Despite the new and potentially limitless affluence around us in the developed world, and our breathtaking advances in our knowledge and technology, feelings of scarcity and the need to guard and protect are still pervasive and hold us back as people, billions of us now. Fortunately, the reasons for this disconnection between our physical reality and personal perspective are understood or understandable, and therefore are correctable or transcendable (even if we must do this by working around or living with some aspects of our innate nature). We have the opportunity to escape, not from reality and our human nature and natural state, as people once dreamed of and thought imperative, but to these things instead and in more profound ways than was ever earlier imagined. Once we begin to live in our new reality of security and the potential to cooperate and become even more secure, and once we begin to perceive in more personal and intimate ways within our lives, we find ourselves far more creative and seeking than we first thought, far more valuable to ourselves and others, and our reality thereby far more shapeable and even in remarkable new ways than our intuition might first allow us to believe.
In a new and timeless manifestation of our deepest human nature, we can all attend to and exercise more care with ourselves and immediate circumstances, learn to better nurture and accept nurturing in our lives, and create positive, self-reinforcing, and lasting new cycles of human progress in our surroundings. In our lives and in our modern world, we can move beyond stalemate, beyond irrational guardedness and fear, and beyond mindless and mindlessly patterned life. We can let go of or live beyond unexamined scripts and constraining categories, individually at first and then in whole communities, to lead and encourage more humane lives of engagement, spontaneity, and joy. Simply in the process of letting go of that which is at our periphery and seeking new perspective, wherever we are in life, we find something new – our natural, more attentive and more nurturing center.
For now, I will simply encourage you to know thyself, to attend to the world around you and to explore your own personal nature as they are and might be, including your natural requirements true health and well-being. I will challenge you to seek out and examine the calm, attentive, and even playful center within you – which will reveal itself to you when you are in fact attentive and playful, when you are centered in your life. And I will ask you to entertain the possibility that abundance, self-abundance, and even superabundance are possible for you and for us all, now, in our special time in history and in our lives today.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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