What is the psychology of conversion? How does a military officer mentally justify actions when he follows orders to obediently hurt innocent people? What was the mental state of the good Germans who became evil Nazis? How is an innately humane spirit subordinated in favor heinous actions? Nazi’s thought they were terminating Jews for God and fatherland. Likewise, what is the serial rapist telling himself? How does violence and exploitation become a normative practice? How is a community of terrorists created? Are they not telling stories to themselves that reinterpret reality?
Somehow, stories have penetrated their psychology to the point where they live in a different world and can withstand bribes and riches to support the cause. The Taliban are really hard to convert. How are corporate workers any different? How do workers at Monsanto or a fracking operation or tar sands mine justify their daily contribution to violence on mother earth? What are the dynamics of getting a new belief system in so deep that it stands up to any adversity?
These very negative examples illustrate a dynamic that has to happen in our minds for good. We are all compromised in our thinking to some extent because we are collaborating on the slow destruction of our world. We have to flip for the positive. Ideas have to penetrate our psyche until we are sold out for humanity and the environment. Why not? People sell out for all kinds of things. Let’s sell out for goodness and health. But enough people have to convert to make a difference.
Mass conversions are composed of individual conversions. Each person has to arrive a point where he or she takes an oath. To attain a disciples’ level of commitment to a good cause will require a deep inner conversion. In our model, however, the driving narrative does not come from heaven above on tablets, or from a prophet or a charismatic leader. It comes from within us and our like-minded friends, who by the way we chose. We are responsible agents: we should drive ourselves to conversion.
Self-conversion has two steps:
- Establish the values to convert to
- Facilitate the conversion
In the first case you are essentially stepping into a new mythical world while in living in the old. Now we do this type of thing all the time for limited durations (when we attend church or watch a movie, for example). This step is preferably done with a group, although of course you must do some preparation – unless you just want to consume the results of the group’s work. Once you participate in a group discussion on values, I think you’ll find participation irresistible. We are wired to contribute to ideas that impact what we believe in.
At whatever level you participate at this stage, the engagement is limited and safe. It is an envisioning exercise; a non-threatening idealistic ‘what if’ session. The pre-cursor is completing mythic awareness workshops, which are also safe and non-threatening. During mythic awareness, the participants de-construct one or more myths to determine the story arch, character types and their underlying drivers. This is not unlike an exercise in literary or movie criticism with a focus on the underlying worldview and corresponding values. The user can participate and then go their current world view ‘home’. Both the mythic awareness and the community values sessions can be fun and easy going, and non-threatening.
In the first phase, the user gets and answer to ‘what do we believe?’ In the second phase, which follows logically from the first, answers the question ‘what should I believe?’, can be a wrenching transformation. It’s even tougher if the user is going the route of individual self-conversion. Doing it as a group is easier, but in some cases where the group is just not forming or the person is isolated, self-conversion is the only route. It’s the route I took because Community Mythology was not a methodology at that time!
Facilitate the Conversion
The second transforming phase essentially reverses the flow of ‘stepping’ into and out of myth. You establish your new world view, stepping in and out of your old until you’re ready to leave it. Think of it as a migration that starts even as your new world view is under construction. The home-purchase analogy is appropriate here. You’re not out shopping for a 200 year old home with all the design decisions made by generations who are long dead. Rather, you are designing a new home. Now you can chose to build it yourself or have the experts build it. Let me explain.
Building a community mythology is not just about writing down values and thinking about behaviors. It’s about holistic programming of our human psyche, which involves all the senses and especially our artistic receptors. So the framework and walls of this new worldview includes narratives, poetry, art, plays and other activities in which you participate. Now if you are artistically inclined, you can get hands-on in this construction phase. If not, there is a mechanism in the process to charter a creative team, analogous to having a contractor build your home. And there’s room in between for you to do some of the work. In fact, because it is a community effort, this is more like a group barn raising.
Whichever way your new world view ‘home’ is built, you will have to move in, which means leaving the old behind. The good news is that you can bring along the best principles and values from the old. However, I don’t recommend that you bring old characters and stories with you because those tend to drag you into old behaviors. Even if you want to keep some attributes of the old, give the character a new name and some fresh clothes.
Realizing our current world view is a fabrication is hard enough – you have to admit that you vested a huge amount of trust and personal equity in a world view that, it turns out, was not handed down from God himself. Humans shaped it over centuries. For the faithful, converting to a brand new mythology is severe cognitive dissonance. We’re used to people converting to an established religion. The notions that 1) a substitute can be created by humans; 2) I have a role in creating that new myth, and; 3) I should crawl into the nest I just created, just doesn’t fit with our current way of thinking. We’re essentially handing God tablets with Holy Writ. Is that blasphemy?
Actually, I don’t think it is. My hunch is that God doesn’t oppose the plurality of religions on this planet precisely because we are created to imagine. This doesn’t mean goodness is arbitrary. We have a God-given conscience that develops in the context of a community and its troubles and lessons. When we ‘give tablets to God’ with a story, the content – if it we have deemed it to be Sacred Content – is founded on goodness that originated with God in the first place. We are the voice in the burning bush.
Given the high personal threshold of mental anguish required to leave a belief system we took for truth, what would motivate a person to change? It’s not impossible. I was a devout Christian missionary and a believer for decades. For me the drivers were threefold: 1) ridding my mind of an entrenched cognitive dissonance caused by the attempt to reconcile religious conundrums (like free will and predestination); 2) as well as the dissonance caused by not acknowledging the religion as myth, and; 3) also trying to make myself and others believe it was somehow objective truth that if not accepted would damn people to hell, and; 4) the conviction coming from having had very real mystical experiences with God that we can in fact experience God. There is true goodness and there is a right way to live on this planet. Finally, 5) survival! I awakened to the fact that our decisions are fast depleting this planet.
For example, soon the jungle elephant will be extinct! And the acidic content of the ocean will dissolve all coral reefs in my lifetime, etc. It’s really sad to know my great grandchildren will not get to dive in coral reefs out in the wild. These and so many other indicators show that if we don’t change drastically, we will have an irreversible dissonance of far greater impact: our future generations will be living on a wasted planet!
The best motivator for the adoption of change is not going to be an academic explanation of a new method for self-conversion. The driver for change will be a demonstration of our dire situation. In other words, awareness will incent change. Community Mythology as a methodology has to be available to the motivated participant when he or she is ready for it!
Some have greater awareness than others. Both the poor and the rich are somewhat insular in their thinking due to their economic circumstances: one preoccupied with survival, the other with attaining and maintaining wealth. At risk of over-generalizing, the rich are nevertheless the ones who can have the greatest impact for change, even if it means a loss of net wealth in the process. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the proverbial needle.
Short of external coercion, which tends to impact behavior in the short term and not necessarily shift the subject’s worldview, what would motivate a rich person to change? He or she might have worked hard to get where they are (or their parents did). They learned the game and invested a lot in attaining and protecting their wealth. We already mentioned awareness of the peril our planet is in. What else can truly motivate them to change? Let’s look at additional factors:
- The happiness factor – does wealth bring happiness, or are there other ways of attaining it truly satisfying happiness? True happiness will lower stress levels, a point brought home by the movie ‘The Economics of Happiness’.
- Empathy – get close to the poor and suffering
- A common humanity – when it comes right down to it, the rich are flesh and bones like the rest of us
- Immersion – experience nature, you will come to love it
- The common environment – a nuclear disaster or mining pollution doesn’t just affect the local community – it can have repercussions far from the source
- The future – get a clear picture of where all this is leading us. You can buy yourself a new condo, and even a luxurious survival bunker, but you can’t buy a new environment
- Negative examples from the old world view, like:
- a corrupt and inefficient church hierarchy
- the deception of a story that is advocated as ‘truth’ should annoy if not anger the deceived
- The goodbye list – we should put together a web site that lists all the things we should experience before they kick the bucket. For example, a pristine ocean or endangered species.
- The positive opportunities:
- We still have time to build a beautiful future
- The opportunity to create new world views that are compatible with the ecosystem
- The spiritual dimensions:
- Do good, it is good karma – it comes around. Pay it forward.
- Integrity – avoid dichotomies and contradictory beliefs
- The artistic dimension:
- Conversion is not towards some impoverish aesthetic experience. Great art isn’t the privilege of the monetarily rich; it’s the right of every one to be aesthetically enriched by art.
- Making art a habit can reduce the dependency on environmentally expensive technology.
- Great music is like hearing the voice of God
Part of the program then, has to be a series of awareness sessions on the various topics relating to humanity and the environment.
The Will to Change
The intent is to increase the will to change among those who can impact change the most. Of course, we also have to impact those who would take their place. Ultimately significant change will be a mass conversion.
What we’re advocating here, by the way, is not an ascetic separation from the corrupt world into a commune in the woods. That’s fine if that’s your thing. However, separation into self-sufficiency will not halt the progress towards wasteland. We’re also not in favor of using violence to stop a corporation from pursuing a reckless and short sighted development plan. We’re also not looking to migrate from one ruined area to a pristine one (which will eventually also get ruined). We have to be agents for change everywhere; we have to recycle old cities. The bottom line is that ‘we the People’ have to find the will to change, and collective change ultimately can only happen with a great number of individual conversions.
Re-programming ourselves starts with the will, then. For me it’s not even the stories I tell myself because after you gain mythic awareness you realize they are fabrications that can and should change. Ultimately community mythology is a means, not a beginning in itself. The true source is your will. After you have softened for change you must harden your resolve towards a good direction. The key is to take control of belief itself and redirect it.
Incidentally you can have good behaviors without full conversion away from a false mythology (i.e. a myth that is purported to be objectively true). You can be a nominal Baptist and live in harmony with people and the planet. You can be a nominal Pope and be corrupt. In the end, the strain of sustaining believe in a false mythology and the conundrums some of these religions brings will keep you from achieving full integrity and happiness. Once you understand the dynamics of myth you will be more at peace converting.
Obviously it helps to understand the process, and the dynamics of myth serve to bake in and harden the direction we choose. Once we are established, stories and art can be used as needed. In a sense growing up to spiritual maturity will leave us with sustainable riches to enjoy but we will not be dependent on them. There’s a deep satisfaction and inner happiness that arrives when we are in harmony with an environment that is in balance. There’s also a humble independence knowing that because our shared stories can be changed, we can step into a new one if it will help others on the same journey.
— Roy Zuniga