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Slowly Seducing the Apex Attractor
Use what is dominant in a culture to change it, but for the love of god take your time
I get the same piece of feedback once or twice a month—usually in messages on twitter, or from people asking about my work. It goes something like “I love what you’re talking about and I love how you express it; I only understand like 60% of what you say, but still, it sounds great.”
There’s a lot going on there, for me.
But one big thing comes back to this again and again: why not speak more clearly? Why don’t I just say things in the simplest possible way, so everyone can understand what I’m saying most of the time?
This connects to another quote people have passed to me a few times:
Use what is dominant in a culture to change it quickly.
The idea being that if I just simplified my ideas and translated them into ideas that are already common and sometimes trendy (the collective unconscious, mind-body medicine, nervous system regulation, etc), then I could have a bigger impact and lead to more understanding in the mid-term.
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this. And also a bit of time dwelling on it. For a week or two in February, I even ruminated on it. (I considered reflecting on it, but couldn’t bring myself to do so.)
After all that, I’ve gotten convinced of two things:
that quote is right in important ways, but lends itself to misleading conclusions.
I’ve had very good reason to trust myself and my own expression of ideas, even when they’ve made things more difficult for me.
First off, the spirit of the quote is right: using what the culture already finds convincing and authorized can be a powerful way to boost your own causes and ideas. There’s no shortage of examples on this, from the way that every company in existence is currently trying to claim that they too are at the forefront of AI, to the way that Tibetan refugees in the last century consciously latched onto psychological vocabulary as a teaching tool for Buddhist ideas.
But there are downsides.
Cultures are big. Cultures are huge messy energies that exert a lot of force on people, groups, institutions, keeping them all within acceptable ranges of behavior and belief.
So, in order to become “What is Dominant in a Culture,” something needs to be an absolute fucking apex predator of a cultural gravity well. It has to be a basin of attraction so assiduously attractive that it’s swallowed bigger ideas than yours by accident, while sleeping, with both hands tied behind its back. (yes basins have hands shut up.)
None of this is to say it can’t be done, or that you shouldn’t do it. From where I stand, the main problem with “Use what is dominant in a culture to change it quickly” is that last word: quickly.
You see, it feels pretty clear to me that Carl Jung was right when he said “People don’t have ideas, ideas have people.”
When an idea comes to me, my animist instincts kick in. I have a sense of responsibility towards it, a near-paternal feeling of duty towards its unfolding.
Part of that duty is to let it grow in its own time, let it find its own shape—and to NOT hammer it into a more convenient shape before it’s even found its natural one.
Going back to the intro, it’s been a very bumpy ride for me, letting some of these ideas take their own shape in their own time. I’ve been saying stuff like “somatic-imaginal” and “mythopoetic cognition” and “we’re here to renew the sacred” and “narrative rewilding” and “inner images are woven into your body” and “somatic narratives are the unconscious mind” for quite awhile. I’ve been using the word “autochthonous” to refer to a quality of what is native to our own experience. At one point I wrote the sentence “soul is the mycelial kintsugi-fascia that connects body, heart, and mind.”
I didn’t have to do that. It would have been much easier (and let’s be honest, probably more marketable) to translate bits and pieces into the parlance of already-dominant ideas, like
“The mind-body connection shows us that when the stories we tell each other change, our health and wellness change too”
“Mastering your archetypes gives you root access to your nervous system”
“Studies show that placebo imagery can alter your immune system, and that imaginal exposure can flush trauma out of the endocrine system—so why should we find it hard to believe that inner images can also ground us in our bodies, transform our souls, and open our hearts to the world around us?”
I could do these all day. I could have done them all day a year ago, if I’d been in the mood. I was aware that there were lots of already-dominant-in-the-culture ideas and labels that I could latch onto to get more people interested in my ideas.
The problem was: I had (have) a duty to the ideas that come to me for expression. Dressing up the ideas in someone else’s words, vibes, and concepts to make them more presentable would have been the idea-steward equivalent of being a pageant mom, forcing my kid into high heels and bright spotlights while she begs to just go back to soccer with her friends.
Ideas need time and space to grow, to be awkward, to try out this and that expression and chase down blind alleys. If you try to make them take a more agreeable shape (and do it fast), you’ll lose them entirely. The animating spark dissolves entirely, leaving you with a slick kludge of anodyne facades around an empty core.
That’s the flip side of “people don’t have ideas, ideas have people.” If you aren’t the right person, if you don’t steward the idea well—it will simply move along and find someone who will. The history of creativity has a consistent chorus of people noticing and expressing this, that ideas have a life of their own and want to be treated in particular ways.
None of this is to say that you can’t use what is dominant in a culture to change it. None of this is to suggest that you can’t use what is dominant in a culture to dress up your own ideas and spread them more widely. It’s just that this process can’t be quick, or you’ll lose what’s most important.
I’m not going to name any names, but looking around it’s not hard to find examples: someone has an insight that feels deep and true and important; they get frantic and move to immediately operationalize it, build a community or institution around it, give talks on it, explain it in the simplest most widely understood terms available—and the whole thing becomes so watered down, so lacking its own vital spark, it’s nothing more than one more victory for What is Already Dominant in the Culture. The basin of attraction ate it whole.
There’s something Abed from Community said that feels relevant here: “When you know who you are and what you like about yourself, changing for other people isn’t such a big deal.”
This holds true for ideas as well as people.
It takes a well-developed person to have this kind of grounded confidence. When most people change for others, it’s borne out of insecurity, and it causes its own damage in time. But when someone changes for others precisely because doing so is insignificant, because they have a firm sense of who they are—that’s a powerful move.
If we change an idea out of insecurity or premature rush—if we shape its expression so other people will like it more or understand better—we do damage to what the idea could ultimately become. We betray the True Self of that idea.
If we allow its expression to shift, precisely because doing so is insignificant and we have a firm sense of what’s really true and good about the idea, no matter what the expression—that’s a powerful move.
But it doesn’t happen quickly.
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