We in the West (not the wild west, but Western culture) are obsessed with ourselves.
"I've got to find my true self," people say. Self-development is a big industry, featuring countless workshops, books, lectures, and such. We're big on autonomy, independence, finding our own way in life, not marching to the beat of someone else's drummer.
Other cultures, such as those in East Asia, are quite different. To a much greater degree than self-absorbed Americans and Europeans, they view the self as including family, community, and societal relationships.
(Wikipedia has a short overview if, like me, you aren't sure what cultural psychology is all about.)
Since I was a member of an India-based spiritual organization for many years, and so got quite a bit of exposure to Indian culture, the podcast helped me better understand some of the differences between "Western" and "Eastern" members of the group that I observed.
I put those terms in quotation marks because, as I noted in my book about Plotinus, in this context West and East are states of mind, not geographic locations. In a "Wisdom for a Western mind" section, I wrote:
I'm quite sure that I have a predominantly Western mind. But since Western ways of thinking and relating to the world are so intimately intertwined in my consciousness, I primarily notice my Western-ness when I associate with people thoroughly imbued with an Eastern mentality -- who may or may not be Indian, Chinese, Japanese, or such, because "Western" and "Eastern" are internal attitudes, not external attributes.
In our increasingly borderless world marked by free-flowing education, information, and technology, an Indian computer scientist may have a Western mind, while her American tai chi instructor may have an Eastern mentality.
I don't have an ironclad definition of the Western and Eastern minds (which implies that my own may not indisputably be of the Occidental variety). But here are a few lighthearted ways to distinguish them experientially.
If you attend a talk on some spiritual subject -- a lecture, sermon, discourse -- and the people around you are reaching for handkerchiefs to dab their tears of love and devotion, while you are pulling out a notebook and pen to jot down critical questions to ask the speaker, you have a Western mind.
If passages in your Bible or other holy book are highlighted in various colors, you have a Western mind (give yourself extra points if objections are penciled in the margin bext to pronouncements you disagree with.)
I don't mean to imply that the Western mind is entirely detached, rational, skeptical, independent, and analytical. Even those with a strong prediliction toward a Western mentality are capable of manifesting the opposite characteristics as well: intimacy, intuition, faithfulness, interdependency, holism.
This is because each of us is a mixture of what we might call "masculine" and "feminine" qualities. The challenge, psychologically, spiritually, even societally, is to find the proper blend of masculine and feminine, Western and Eastern, yang and yin, respectively.
I quoted myself at length both because I like to do this (hey, I said I've got a self-centered Western mind), but also because the general thrust of what I wrote fits quite well with the cultural psychology musings I heard on the Philosophy Talk podcast.
I've got a certain way of looking at the world. Other people, from different cultures, see the same world differently. Religions and spiritual beliefs mirror these varying ways of understanding how "self" and "other" connect, interrelate, mesh with each other.
On the podcast Hazel Marcus kept making the same point in various ways: our perspective isn't the only perspective. Here in the West, we tend to see our highly individual-centered culture as the model for how the rest of the world should be, and become.
One of the Philosophy Talk hosts said that he views autonomy as a highly important cultural value, maybe the most important. So to him, a culture which subordinates individual decision-making to familial, societal, and other relationships is flawed.
Marcus tried, semi-successfully, to get the guy to understand that this very assumption -- individual autonomy is #1 -- is a cultural assumption, not an objective fact about human nature.
Along this line, recently I read about a man who for decades has driven three hours each way to his job in Tokyo, because he can't imagine leaving the neighborhood where his family has lived for many generations, and where he is intimately connected with many relatives.
That is, his sense of self is so intertwined with these other people, and his obligations to them (along with their obligations to him), that the American attitude of "Dude, you've got to start living for your own self!" wouldn't make any sense to him.
All this relates to comment discussions we have here on the Church of the Churchless, where some with an "Eastern" devotional mentality, as in just have faith, are at odds with those who espouse a "Western" skeptical attitude, as in prove it.
Since I've walked on both sides of this street, so to speak, I can understand the appeal of each. But appeal isn't really the right word, because I don't think we willfully choose how we relate to the world in the same way as someone is drawn to prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream.
According to Wikipedia, cultural psychology says that "culture and mind are inseparable, thus there are no universal laws for how the mind works and that psychological theories grounded in one culture are likely to be limited in applicability when applied to a different culture."
Makes sense to me.
Eastern religions work for people who have a predominantly Eastern mind. Western religions work for people who have a predominantly Western mind. And whatever sort of mind a person has, living without religion, yet within one's culture, is a fine option also.
As I've grown fonder of Taoism and Tai Chi, I find that my sense of self has been altering in compatible ways. This is one of the benefits of the increasingly borderless world alluded to above.
No matter where we live, and what sort of culture we're surrounded by, we have more options than before. We can try out different ways of viewing our "self," seeing whether an indvidualistic or interrelated perspective is more pleasing.
(For the academically inclined who want to delve into this subject more, I came across a journal article by Hazel Marcus that describes a study aimed at comparing how North Americans and Indians choose consumer products.
I didn't read all of it, but could get the drift: individual preference isn't as important to Indians, whose choices are more influenced by other people and cultural factors. See:
Download 2008PreferenceGuide )