‘Something in the psyche wants to subvert whatever is there, turn it under and upside down, examine it from the bottom, find some odd detail that will capsize the accepted view, ... the cultural assumptions by which we live but which we do not see clearly. Still a romantic at heart, I want nothing less than to change the culture, to make it a psychological, soul-serving culture. But changing culture can be done in small ways, just as small snapshots may be just as compelling and significant as billboard-size blow-ups.’
– Lyn Cowan, from Tracking the White Rabbit
Consensus culture is a culture of rules or ways of life existing inside a particular group or society. The members of the group adopt these rules or 'ways of how to be' overtly, through suggestion, or tacitly. An underlying attitude or belief of ‘we all know that this is how things work’ often accompanies expressions of this culture. Frequently, in a tone implying its ‘common sense’ and the stupidity or shamefulness of anyone not living accordingly. This attitude is an example of how we defend against the fundamental uncertainty of our existence. There is comfort in feeling kinship with others, especially a group of others. And we are no less materialistic in how we protect our identity with ‘us-ness.’ Which we often do without any honest reflection on the roots of why and how we do it.
Why consensus ‘culture’?
Consensus culture sometimes functions on the level of identification ‘with society.’ Even though there exists little meaningful contact between the members of that society. On this level the newspapers or magazines we read, the TV we watch, music we listen to, websites we visit, even the food we eat or restaurants we go to, constantly and fervently weave consensus culture into the fabric of our lives. While we consume it eagerly, filtering and interpreting what we consume to reinforce our own fantasies of kinship. With ‘being on the inside.’ ‘Being in the right.’ So simply going round and round, yet again cultivating our ‘sense of self,’ our ego.
On the level of ‘community,’ we may notice for example, how even driving habits reflect the differences between cultures. In how the rules of the road are interpreted from one neighbourhood to another. How often do conversations with our fellows we encounter in the streets, consist mainly of justifying and substantiating how the way we live is how things should be throughout the world?
The point of calling it consensus ‘culture,’ is that such cultures sprout and take root beyond conscious intention. Beyond what is overtly agreed on in the group. As if some spirit is born amidst the cult of the herd. A spirit that has its own will, which drives things on through possession of the herd. Like a herd of Buffalo, over the precipice. Yet there may still be some who have remained open enough, and not so subscribed to this culture that they have become blind to it or blinded by it. Perhaps they may sense its presence, just as if it was a ghost-like creature alive in the space among the members of the group. As if they could reach out and touch its cold beating heart.
Consensus culture and individual destiny
Of course, there is a place for convention, for the agreed-upon ways that regulate life in the group. Truth is, we are not yet able to live without it. Rules provide cohesion and meaning to groups, and they facilitate peaceful interactions and transactions inside the group. But at a certain point on any authentic path, one inevitably comes into conflict with this group morality. On the one hand, truly opening to the depths of soul is naturally transgressive of where nearly all consensus cultures in our world today have morally evolved to.π On the other hand, at a certain point, soul-work demands that one lets go of rule-based thinking per se. In order to further deepen spiritually. In other words, there is something about any consensus culture, no matter how evolved, that naturally obstructs individuals from following their destiny.π
It is relatively easy to separate out from consensus culture on a society or community level. One may still be able to function as needed inside these groups while not remaining subscribed to their morals. It is more difficult where we are more intimately, intricately and deeply woven into the fibres of a particular group. Here, our conflict with some members or the group as a whole, can have a devastating effect on our lives. And sometimes, surrendering into that devastation is the appropriate and only route towards truly opening into following our destiny.
Groups and their cultures
Here we need to pause and distinguish between groups and consensus culture. All groups contain consensus culture and there is no getting around that. In fact, it is a poignant example of one of those key ‘imperfections’ in nature. But consensus culture tends to effect the eventual loosening of hardened sediment in our beings and of how we live. And so releases essential alchemical energies that serve as fuel for our soul-making.
A more mature group is not so attached to its consensus culture that it leaves no space for its members to follow their individual destinies. Despite this, even in such groups, these individuals will come into conflict with the consensus culture of their group. The difference is that a mature group will allow for an authentic dialogue to open up from the conflict. Of which an essential component is that the group-members and leaders are open to let go of elements of their consensus culture that obstruct soul-making once they have been exposed.
Of course, the individuals have to be of a certain level of maturity too, for this dialogue to unfold honestly and truthfully. But significantly, the dialogue itself is what matures everyone involved. It usually demands sacrificesπ in the true sense of the word, on both sides. And so following one’s destiny provokes not only individual alchemy, but alchemy for the group as a whole. But be warned: there are not many such groups in our world. Unfortunately this also applies to so-called spiritual communities. For often these communities are bound together and driven by ego-needs that they are not willing to sacrifice.
Seeing through the group's shadow
Truly entering into this dialogue demands that we expose the shadows of that particular consensus culture. And the level of resistance a group shows against such exposure eventually reveals whether one will be able to have the necessary dialogue to the depth it requires. It is very difficult to confirm the presence of consensus culture, to expose its ‘realness’. Precisely because this culture is where the shadows of the group lurk. That is, those values, ideas, practices and habits in the group that prevent its individuals from further deepening spiritually. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of these shadows, in the habitual tone of the interactions between members of the group.
The thing is, these shadows facilitate some, many or even most of the members of that group to maintain some power or way of life they have become dependent on. And so, there is great resistance to anyone questioning the integrity of the prevailing culture in the group. This is so, whether the individual members are conscious or unconscious of these shadows.
We even sometimes see in some groups, an ongoing ‘ideological campaign’ that was systematically introduced. And which continues to subtly reinforce the message that any such questioning means ‘the individual is losing their way.’ This is sometimes accompanied by not-so-subtle hints that if one stays in line with the consensus culture, one will be rewarded. And the unspoken ‘small-print’ of such campaigns frequently emanates suggestions of the shamefulness attached to anyone who dares to contradict it and the exile that awaits those who do not stay in line.
The very existence of such a culture stymies the work of spirit and soul. Those who consciously foment or go along with it, are not only selling their souls, but willfully harming others. And some even take pleasure in doing this. While those who are unconscious of the existence of this culture often have powerful resistance against becoming aware of it. Because they pre-consciously or unconsciously sense that truthful acknowledgement of its existence entails exile or other consequences they cannot bear to even contemplate.
Truth is, both have become wholly materialistic. They would rather suspend their authentic life’s journeys than lose the benefits from creating and remaining inside such a group. Some even call this ‘a necessary sacrifice’. Which is poignantly ironic, because it has the opposite effect of ‘making sacred’. Such is the warp and weft of insidious consensus culture.
Meeting the conflict
When we arrive at the place in our journey where we come into conflict with the consensus culture of our group, we are usually not ready for what we’re about to face. That’s why we often experience a lot of anxiety at this juncture. Here, we usually have not yet sufficiently embodied our capacity for what the I Ching calls ‘correctness’. But then, this very crossroads may exactly be what is needed. Including the experience of ‘not being up to the task’. That is, for us to be plunged into the very alchemy (‘the process’, ‘trial’ or ‘turmoil’) required to come closer to such embodied correctness.
The conflict that rises at this juncture usually stirs in us unconsciously at first. There is a real danger that we may come to a decisive clash with the group or members of the group in a way that does not facilitate embodiment of anything. No wonder Psyche feels anxious! She is in danger of going through the ordeal of losing Eros again! To prevent this, it is required that we see through the shadows we are coming up against. And start to navigate our way to meet it fully, and dialogue deeply with it.
The alternative is perhaps an even greater danger to soul. Which is, for the sake of staying inside the group, we may collapse and stagnate on our soul-journey. Which sometimes happens without our realising it or really knowing why. But then, ‘going astray’ is often an essential excursion on any authentic journey. As long as we ‘catch ourselves’ drifting like this, and at that point ‘come back to the breath.’
Embodied correctness is a core element of the maturity mentioned earlier. That is, for us to become capable of honest, deep and truthful involvement in any group. While not remaining beholden to its consensus culture. In fact, this is another reason why we cannot ‘go it alone’ and call it our authentic journey. Because we will not be exposed to very necessary initiations without such involvement in a spiritual community.
So, importantly, truly separating out from the consensus culture of our group, does not entail wildly transgressing the rules of that group. That would be collapsing into immaturity, not deepening further on the spiritual path. However, it does mean moving closer to where one’s life is no longer directed by ‘the letter of the law.’π But rather by something much deeper, more organic and closer to the raw nature of existence.