Red, Yellow, Green: A Tool for Mindfulness and Developing Self-Knowledge

Know Thyself. As many of us are aware, we are all… | by CMAHC Australia |  Medium

Know thyself. That’s what we are supposed to do, isn’t it? The image here, a screenshot from the 1999 film The Matrix, is, in part an exploration of knowing oneself. It’s a point when the character Neo, must confront his uncertainly, face his fears and discomfort and walk forward into difficult and seemingly impossible circumstances.

There is great power and wisdom in learning who you are, in how you move through the world. Knowing how you will react to something, can be a useful tool for a better life and for working in less than ideal circumstances. There are endless books and meditation masters who teach how to develop this kind of self-knowledge and wisdom. But it’s not easy, is it?

I’ve now been a practicing Buddhist for 6 years. But before that, I dabbled in pretty much every religion and religious teachings I could get my hands on. For me, Buddhism has turned out to be the best path for developing self-knowledge, but it’s certainly not for everyone. Different people require different tools and different methods to develop their self-awareness and no one tool is necessarily better than the other, they are just different. So, when I come across a new tool, or a series of encounters that creates some sort of alchemy in my brain and allows me to share what I think could be a useful one, I try to share it with people.

Recently my partner introduced me to the concept of Red, Yellow, and Green consent. That when you are doing things together, you can use that as a method to regulate experiences to gauge how you are feeling about things, and how to proceed. Then today, listening to Pema Chodron’s wonderful audio lectures Don’t Bite the Hook, it occurred to me that this method could be used for developing all sorts of mindfulness and personal awareness when working with your mind and emotions, especially in the realm of anger and frustration.

Red, Yellow, Green, the colors of a traffic light can tell us a lot about how we are feeling internally. So let’s break them down:

Red: I am absolutely not okay with this. It needs to stop immediately, it’s too much or too fast… or too something… and makes me deeply uncomfortable, afraid, or angry. I need to step back now and get out of this situation.

Yellow: This is pushing my boundaries and I am feeling some discomfort, but if we proceed cautiously I might be okay. However, I might need to stop and step back too. I had better check in with myself frequently as I proceed.

Green: I’m totally fine and this experience is going well. We can proceed with what we are doing or where we are going without worrying. I am feeling at peace with my outer circumstances.

This can be applied to anything. You can apply this to going out to a bar and meeting new people. You can apply it to deal with that difficult family member. How about that solo backpacking trip in another country where you don’t speak the language? I think it could also work extremely well in counseling or therapy, especially when trying to tackle painful experiences and trauma.

Knowing where you are at can be hard sometimes and sometimes you might not be sure. If you aren’t sure you are at it, you are likely in the yellow territory. It means you need to pay attention to your thoughts and your emotions as the situation develops. Honestly, a lot of life we spend in a kind of trepidatious code yellow don’t we? Some of us more than others. So much of our life is framed with expectations and assumptions and one thing you can do with the practice of looking at code yellow moments really digs into why you might be having those assumptions and expectations.

I often say, especially when discussing forthcoming books or films, expectations are the death of joy. If you are so filled up with expectations, you may miss something amazing because it didn’t go exactly how you thought it would. This is a lot of what Zen Master Suzuki Roshi was writing about all those years ago in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. If we go into things like an open and positive beginner, much of life will be easier. But life can wound us, and if we aren’t careful, we fall into the expectation of it always wounding us, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Why is this method useful? Well, when you are venturing into uncharted waters, no matter what that form might take, a few breaths and checking in with yourself can be a really important way to stop things from escalating to the point of allowing them to get out of control. Sometimes when we are in the middle of something we can find ourselves swept into an experience that we don’t understand, or that will later be a source of trauma, depression, shame, guilt, or anger. So, if we can check in with ourselves as things are happening, we can develop self-knowledge about how different experiences impact our mental and emotional health.

But what if I don’t have a choice?

If you go into a situation that you don’t have a choice but to be in a yellow or red situation, say dealing with a really difficult family member, you can still use this method. How? Well you know going in, it’s already a code yellow situation. You know that you are wary, and in the past, you have had lots of negative encounters with spending time with this family member. So, knowing that in advance, you can build in breaks or moments of comfort.

Perhaps you can only handle this person for an hour before you need a break. So, set an alarm, or have a friend call or text you to remind you when it’s been an hour and you need a break. You could also just set hour-long meetings with them until you’re comfortable with longer. In any case, after that hour, you can have a strategy for escaping what’s happening. Perhaps you go step outside for five minutes and center yourself. Maybe you go and take a little bit longer in the bathroom and take some deep breaths, notice where you are keeping tension, (or if your Buddhist say some mantras or practice a compassion exercise), and try to just be with it. Many religions and spiritual traditions have different methods for handling things like this. Make a plan. You’d be surprised how much it helps.

The point is if you know you are going into a situation that is yellow you can prepare. If you find yourself in the Red, it can be more difficult. You may have to physically leave. If you have no choice but to go into a Code Red situation, maybe consider bringing an ally that will help keep you grounded, or at least set  clear boundaries for how things will proceed. Perhaps on the way there you listen to something calming and walk into the situation centered. We can’t always avoid these kinds of situations, but we can prepare ourselves and shift the way we think about them. As Pema Chodron says, (paraphrased) you can’t really avoid pain, but what you do with it, is what matters. Pain can be a powerful ally for personal growth and transformation if we let it be.

And of course, this tool may not work for you. It may work for very few people in general. But the point is, to work on learning about yourself. Practicing remembering where you are at, what you are doing, and what habits are further creating conflict in your life. Sometimes just noticing those things that upset you can be a doorway to something so much better.

The Great Risk of Truly Being

The Great Risk of Truly Being

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my Buddhist spiritual path and also I’ve been rereading Children of Dune by Frank Herbert. This is because the Dune movie comes out in October 2021 and I wanted to be reminded of why I love that universe. This quote in particular stuck with me today in thinking about my own spiritual path and the way I live my life.

“You, Priest in your mufti, you are a chaplain to the self-satisfied. I come not to challenge Muad’Dib but to challenge you! Is your religion real when it costs you nothing and carries no risk? Is your religion real when you fatten upon it? Is your religion real when you commit atrocities in its name? Whence comes your downward degeneration from the original revelation? Answer me, Priest!” – Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert: 9780593201749 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Now understand, if you haven’t read the Dune series, it is fundamentally about the nature and dangers of power and of messiahs/heroes. Paul Atreides, the main character in the first book, knows because of his ability to see the future, that a holy war will be waged in his name and there is little he can do about it. The book, and the series as a whole, asks us to consider what we believe, who we have mythologized, and what that says about humanity, power, love, compassion and asks what it means to be human. There is a reason that the book is considered a masterpiece by both the literary community and many sci-fi lovers. Dune is also the best-selling Sci-fi Novel of all time. Even if it’s not for you (because every great work has people who don’t like or understand it and there is nothing wrong with that), it has lots of powerful things to say about the way humans do things.

Stop right now, and think about your life path. Is your path about self-satisfaction? It is about serving your interests? Is it about the arrogance of being right above all others? Or, is your way of knowing the world about self-reflection? Is there a space for growth and change, the transformation into the best version of yourself? Are you taking the risk to truly be or are you buried in a series of identity markers and worried about defining who you are to everyone you meet? Do you focus on comparison? We all fall into these traps, I know I do sometimes and have to catch myself.

So many religious and non-religious people seek a philosophy not out of transformation and growth, but for comfort and safety. They like things that make their life feel cozy and warm. And while the benefits of community (notice the word unity at the end of the word) are important and worthwhile, I want you to sincerely ask yourself, what have you done to grow lately? Have you acknowledged the ways in which you are wrong or at least entertained the idea that you might be wrong? It can be powerful to look at your ideas and consider that you might be wrong about everything (even if you end up being correct) once in a while. Are you doing the work to be a better version of yourself or are you feeding the beast of arrogance and certainty?

You might be thinking, well isn’t a better version of myself a self-serving principle? It is not. Why? Because a better version of yourself will have better daily interactions. It will be less angry, less selfish/greedy. A better version of yourself will listen with patience to others rather than jumping to conclusions and is much more likely to help those in need. A better version will not only suffer less, but cause others to suffer less. A better version of yourself means that your part of the world, and potentially the whole world, is a little better. It might not add up to much, but imagine if everyone was doing this kind of work on at least a semi-regular basis.

So if your religion or ideology or philosophy (secular or non) is about what you can gain personally from others no matter the cost, then you might need to stop and reflect. What do you serve? Some of you might simply say God or Country, but if your service is exclusive only to those who believe what you do, or conditional on whether or not they will act and behave in the way you want them to, then you only serve an idol of the self and arrogance.

Another quote to consider from verse 8 of the Tao Te Ching:

“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.”

If you are Christian, you can see a similar attitude in The Sermon on the Mount and a number of other places in the bible. If you’re Muslim, there are words like this in the Koran, or the Hindu Vedas, in many Buddhist Sutras, and so on. The teachings of many religious philosophies overlap in the idea of personal growth is vital, and yet, somehow the worship of the myth structure becomes far more important than the actual practice of working toward being a better person. We often view these ideas as a panacea for the poisons of living in a difficult world and forget that nothing comes without work.

Instead, we see so many religions (and secular ideologies) restrict people’s actions out of a false sense of morality or limited black and white thinking. But the world is full of shades of grey. Even really good people do terrible things. Really bad people sometimes show amazing acts of kindness and compassion. It is so easy to pin a group of people or a culture to a certain standard or ideology, rather than accepting the fact, that no matter where you go, people are just people and all are equally complex.

So ask yourself sincerely, what purpose does your religion or ideology serve? Is it about the betterment of yourself and humanity? If not, it’s just another object to be possessed, a kind of materialism, a limit to the way you think and approach the world. If your heart is closed because of what you subscribe to, then you very likely have missed the entire point.

The work is not comfortable. The work is not easy. The work isn’t about serving the self. The work is risky and sometimes dangerous to your identity. If you have summed up your identity in a few key terms (be it a religious identity, a political affiliation, a gender, a mental state, really anything), then you have forgotten that we are an ever-changing, ever-moving entity. You are not the same person you were when you started reading this short essay, even if you reject all of my ideas.

Personal growth, in my view, is the most important thing we can do. After all, using this life, this precious moment (no matter if you believe in one life or countless lives) seems to me, to be the reason why humans are on this planet. Let your spirituality or philosophy open you up to the wonders of the universe. After all, there is endless beauty and joy to be discovered both out there, and within. You need only take off the veils or masks that we all wear and look honestly.

How to Understand Poverty (Resources and Science Based Evidence Here)

We live in a divided country. A lot of people think that this division is about progressive vs conservatives. But the reality of the situation is that perception is a mask for the real and primary dividing factor, wealth vs poverty.

There are an awful lot of narratives about what poverty means and relative poverty in our society. A lot of people think that the poor just aren’t saving well or that the government already spends too much on social safety nets. The problem is, these arguments are political folk tales, not based on science or evidence. The reality is so much more complicated than these simplistic arguments that surround our notions of economic purity.

What do I mean by purity? Well, consider this video surrounding how much of the western world breaks down it’s notions of right or wrong, black and white. Anthropology Shorts: Mary Douglas Purity and Danger

We like easy, clear categories, to oversimplify elements of life and society and reinforce that with notions of morality that manifest in guilt, shamming, gossip and of course media. These notions of either/or logic (known in some social sciences as a false dichotomy) prevent us from understanding the actual situation on the ground. This leads to something called, perceived truth vs ground truth.

Perceived vs Ground Truth

Perceived truth is what we think is happening, or what ideally is going to happen when we institute new policy or laws or ideas in the real world. Ground truth is when that plan, or policy, or cultural norm actually impacts the lived experiences of human beings. For example, the idiom, “A rising tide lifts all boats”, is a perceived truth that comes out of the 1980s in economics. It’s the idea of trickle down economics and neoliberalism, that if you deregulate economics, empower companies and increase privatization, everyone will benefit. This is a perceived truth. With more than four decades of these polices, the truth on the ground shows us something different (Check out this article on Why Trickle Down Economics Doesn’t Work). The lived experience of working people is much different than the claim. They have not benefitted from these policies and in fact just the opposite. The ground truth is, these policies hurt most Americans while lining the pockets of those already in power. In fact, we now have the highest rate of inequality since records began.

Social Mobility, The American Dream, and Bootstraps.

What about social mobility and the notion that, given hard work, someone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? The Bootstraps idea is another example of perceived truth, something that the media often touts via anecdotal evidence, that highlights the exception and not the rule. This is a media system that is largely owned by private firms, have a vested interested in continuing the narratives of the people who own them and fund them. Many of these big companies own a large portion of the media system and thus you have limited narratives that are available for people to consider. One of the creepiest examples of this concentration of media is the script that Sinclair forced about 200 of their local news broadcasts to read.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman highlighted the relationship between these narratives in the media and the control of what the media can say through five major filters in their famous book, Manufacturing Consent. The book examines the structure of large scale media. As it turns out, Media narratives actually make the situation of working people worse by casting perceived truth as a form of ultimate truth. Scholar Peter Drier highlights the problems of media systems and perceptions of poverty in his article, How Media Compounds Urban Problems and notes that the media often makes poverty worse by highlighting the exceptions and not the normal experiences of people on the ground. Narratives about welfare queens and troubled youth lead the news, while communities working together to solve issues or what it looks like to be poor are largely ignored. The job of the media is to hold those in power accountable, not to trumpet their narratives and further the suffering of the average citizen.

The thing about bootstraps is, not only is social mobility extraordinarily difficult, but it’s not even uniquely American. It turns out, that data doesn’t support that social mobility is as common in the United States as we think. Yes, there is an American Dream, but not only is it rare, but many of the other developed nations have much higher rates of social mobility, and much lower rates of inequality. Countries like Canada, have near double our social mobility. If your a podcast listener, Radiolab did a great job of breaking down the numbers on social mobility as well as debunking some of the myths surrounding poverty as well. Check it out here.

It’s expensive to be poor…

So often I hear, well if the poor were better at saving, then they wouldn’t be poor. The problem is, it’s expensive to be poor. You may have seen this meme going around social media at some point.

Is this perceived truth or ground truth? In this case we know it’s ground truth. That on the ground, it’s more expensive to be poor then middle class. This was very effectively demonstrated in the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The fact of the matter is, simple little things like not having a washer and dryer in your house mean that you have to spend more time and money to accomplish simple tasks. If it was just one of these things, it wouldn’t amount to much extra labor or expense, but as Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrates in her book, every Nickel and Dime adds up and adds to the weight of extra time and money that poor people have to spend. Living paycheck to paycheck isn’t just about saving, often it is impossible to actually put away money. In fact, nearly 40% of Americans are one emergency away from disaster and homelessness.

As a father, and even with a graduate degree, I’ve experienced events like this first hand. I have skipped meals to be sure my children eat. I’ve gone long periods of time without seeing a dentist or a doctor because I can’t afford it, which could cost me a lot more later (i.e. the meme above). I have to prioritize everything I do to figure out how to pay bills and keep food on the table. Many poor families are far more disciplined about money than I and working with communities and doing first hand research, I’ve notice that the idea the poor are lazy or unable to manage their money is not only false, it’s actively harmful. For example, when I was in graduate school, I was forced to dumpster dive for three months when I only had $1 a day for food after bills. The reality is, sometimes there is no way to save and even when you do, surprises happen and you suddenly find your savings drained because your car breaks down (because most poor people cannot afford a car that is newer and less likely to break down) or perhaps you get sick and can’t afford the copays because the insurance industry is all part of systemic poverty. Which leads to the next point…

Poverty as a System and Structural Violence

Poverty is a system, a structure in society that is not created on accident. It has little to do with a lack of work ethic or training and so much more to do with how the game is rigged.

Anthropologists introduced a concept called Structural Violence way back in the 1960s. It is the idea that systems of power do everything they can to maintain that power. Anthropologist Paul Farmer wrote a 2004 article titled An Anthropology of Structural Violence. In it, he details how altering history or hiding large portions of it, allow for the continuance of a system that significantly oppresses the people of Haiti. He shows that the large problems they have in arenas like health care are a direct result of wide systemic problems.

The reality of the situation is that the people of Haiti were purposely disenfranchised by the dominant European and American powers because their independence in 1804, came as a result of the a massive slave revolt. Wanting to make sure that their own slaves didn’t get any ideas, France, England, and the newly formed United States spent the next few decades (the United States still intervenes and did so for much of the cold war) intervening in the politics, economics and government of Haiti to ensure that it did not become a successful nation. Much of modern poverty is like this, it was created by those in power and is maintained by those in power. As I discussed in my YouTube video on the origin of the concept of Race, even the very notion that we have different races was created in the 17th century as a means to divide and conquer a diverse group of poor in the American colonies after Bacon’s Rebellion to prevent further uprising.

The original idea of the board game Monopoly was to teach people how these structures work. The linked article highlights the history of the game but also gives people a glimpse at what happens with deregulated greed. One player ultimately ends up controlling the board while everyone else struggles and eventually loses. Poverty is no accident, it’s a rigged game. Two books highlight real world poverty and why such insane levels of inequality are a terrible idea. The first Why We Can’t Afford the Rich draws on a mountain of academic research to demonstrate how these systems function and why philosophies like neoliberalism and libertarianism are actually dangerous for society and lead to economic collapse. The second book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism further explores these problematic assumptions about perceived truth vs ground truth and how this manifests around the world. If you are interested specifically in what happened when water became privatized you can read this article by Michael Goldman.

White Privilege Test (The Anti-Racist Educator Edition)

Poverty is no accident, it’s a structure. And while personal accountability is important the structure of a society can make change incredibly difficult for some, and much less for others. You may have seen this meme on the right traveling around the internet as well.

This meme is a simple and quick way to understand exactly how these systems work. Yes, hard work is a good thing. Yes, personal responsibility is a vital thing. But if the hardest working, most dedicated people in America were paid based on their work, it would be the janitors, the farmers, the construction workers, the teachers, and others like them who put all of their time and energy into the work who would do the best in society. We don’t really value a hard day of work, we value a false ideal of what work should look like and who is doing it. We are stuck in the perceived truth, the almost spiritual platonic forms of perception about work and wealth, and not what’s actually happening on the ground for the lived experience of many Americans. As long as we value perceived truth over real world evidence (and not anecdotes based on the extremes) we will face significant division and conflict. We must study and understand the structures of our society or risk further economic collapse and the suffering of many.

Suggested Films:

Inequality for All

Capital in the 21st Century (Netflix Original)

Inside Job

Simulacra (Sci-Fi Flash Fiction)

Simulacra is a piece of flash fiction (less than 1000 words) about a conversation between two men, after it’s revealed that our whole world is a simulation created by future humans to study the past.

Simulacra

“Because, Edgar, you’re living in a simulation!”
Roger pointed to the glitch, a rather large shimmering hole in the fabric of reality. “There are hundreds of those all over this so called world!”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t have to water my tomatoes.”
“Nothing matters anymore, we aren’t even real, we’re software. Didn’t you see the news? It’s confirmed, there’s no denying it, our designers even showed us how it works and made people appear and disappear. I got to walk on the so called moon without a spacesuit yesterday. What do you think about all of this?”
“ I think my tomato plants won’t appreciate it if I let them die.”
“Screw your tomato plants!” Roger waved his arms and paced back and forth across the garden patio.
“What did my tomato plants ever do to you?”
“Not exist!”
“Well I don’t see how that’s their fault.”
“We don’t exist either.”
Edgar stepped back for a moment, looked at his watering can, looked at the plants, looked at Roger, shrugged his shoulders and started to water his plants again.
“Nice day for it.”
“For what?”
“For living in a simulation. At least they didn’t make it a dreary day.”
Roger strode forward and knocked the watering can out of Edgar’s hands. Water spilled everywhere.
“That was rude.”
“It doesn’t matter does it?”
“It matters to me, and now my socks are wet.”
“Your socks aren’t real, your feet aren’t real, the watering can isn’t real. This isn’t a hoax, this isn’t made up. We know, for a fact, that our whole existence is a program run by humans from the 24th century to try and understand why the 2020 sucked so bad and all you can talk about is your wet socks and tomatoes?”
“You don’t seem to be social distancing well Rodger.”
“Covid-19 is a simulation!”
“That doesn’t mean I won’t get sick.”
Edgar pressed his wet feet into the cement making squishing sounds. “My shoes are soggy. It’s going to take a whole day for them to dry.”
Roger sat down, pulled out a cigarette and lit it.
“Why are your smoking?”
“Because it makes me feel better.”
“But you said yourself, you aren’t real. You stopped me from watering my plants. I don’t see how a cigarette will make you feel better.”
“Well our creators made me addicted.”
“That a bit like saying, the Devil made me do it. I don’t see any designer shouting at you to smoke.”
Roger puffed smoke. “It’s in the algorithms or something. I don’t see anyone making you water your stupid tomatoes.”
Edgar picked up the watering can, walked over to the spigot in the wall and refilled it. He turned to water his plants again. He said, “And just what should we do about this whole simulation business?”
Roger strode forward and knocked the watering can out of Edgar’s hands again.
“Do? What should we do?”
Edgar sighed picking up the can again, “Well I can finish watering my plants and you can keep smoking.”
“What’s the point?”
“What was the point before?”
“Before, we had meaning and purpose. We talked about the nature of humanity and meant it. We debated ideologies and philosophies and talked about free will. But it seems, we were all wrong. Well, except for the few crazy ones who already suspected the truth. But we ignored them.”
“Your life had purpose before?”
“Shut up, you know what I mean.”
“So what then?”
“We could break it.”
“The simulation?
Roger nodded.
“How?”
“I don’t know. You stop watering your plants and I’ll stop smoking.”
“If I don’t water my plants they will die.”
“Yeah, sure. Maybe we should do crazy off the wall things that humans wouldn’t normally do?”
“Like?”
“Dress up our animals and treat them like humans?”
“There is a whole industry that caters to that.”
“Burn buildings to the ground?”
“That just sounds like a riot.”
“Well we have to do something.”
“Why? Why not just enjoy the simulation? Maybe make some different choices and see how it goes?”
“But…” Rodger gestured at the large glitch in reality. “We can’t just pretend like nothing is different. That what we know now is meaningless.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s a crime. We’re oppressed by our future selves.” Roger paused. “I got it! We’ll go on a general strike!”
“And do what?”
“Nothing.”
“Sounds like most days for you.
“Shut up.”
“And what will that accomplish Roger?”
“Well the designer on the news said they created this simulation to model human behavior. What if, all of us, everywhere, in the simulation, decide that we will do absolutely nothing. We won’t do a damn thing. We will just stay still until… until…”
“Until what?”
“They set us free!”
“Aren’t we software?”
“Yes but…”
“Can software become free of hardware?”
“Yes!, No… maybe… I don’t know.”
“Have you considered the opposite?”
“The… opposite?”
“What if, now hear me out. The glitches weren’t an accident? What if the designers were bored with modeling human behavior in the 21st century and thought, well, let’s tell them the truth and see what they do? What if, every thing you are saying now is a pre-made program set to infect all of us and we’re playing into their very hands at this moment.”
Roger blinked. “I… I never thought of that.”
“Do you know how long you have existed Roger?”
“What?”
“How long have we known each other?”
“A few years why?”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes we met at that party in Hebron.”
“I’ve never been to Hebron.”
“What do you mean?”
“A week. You popped up a week ago, the exact same time as the glitches.”
“What? Wait, if that’s true, how come you remember it?”
“A glitch probably.”
“You mean a real one? Not one made by the designers?”
“Yes, I think so. You’re an probably part of the experiment Roger. Now sit down, shut up and let me water my tomatoes.”

World Building Part 4: Six Things To Think About When Constructing Myth In Fiction

Fantasy, Goddess, Mystic, Serpent, Snake, Woman, Myth

Want a much expanded book on worldbuilding and anthropology? Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers, now available on Kindle!

Myths are fascinating and interesting arenas within cultures. Every culture has some kind of myth story (but not all cultures have creation myths i.e. the Piraha) that helps us to understand what in the world we are supposed to be doing as human beings.

But here’s the thing. There are a lot of video games and fiction out there that just throw in cute myth story for no apparent reason. The myth is fascinating but doesn’t have any weight in the character’s lives. The culture gives it a nod here and there and it holds no real consequences in the society. This is a major problem. This is where many fictional worlds go wrong. So here is a list of things about myths that you should consider in order to create better cultures and better worlds.

Note: You may want to check out Worldbuilding parts 1-3 over here

1. Myths aren’t just about religion. They aren’t all false. They are repositories of knowledge a culture uses to interpret reality.

Every country has a myth about it’s creation. In the United States we tell a story of the Founding Fathers, a group of men who fought for liberty against the tyranny of the King of England and ultimately won out. Upon the granting of our independence, a sacred document was penned to replace the faulty Articles of Confederation that tenuously held the colonies together. This document is called the Constitution.

Every American grows up hearing this. We interpret these stories and this document over and over when new ideas, technologies, court battles, as they come into our culture. That document and it’s amendments structure the values of our society and so, there are endless debates and interpretations of what those men wrote. This is a very active and powerful myth structure.

When you create your myth structure, be it religious or secular in nature, what impact does it have in society? How do people debate the meaning of those myths? Are their other myth structures at odds with the dominant one? For example, how do the Christian myth structures support or conflict with that of the Founding Fathers and the formation of our country? We see constant debates on laws and rights based on these two competing (and sometimes overlapping) myths. This is an arena in fiction that is rife with making authentic and interesting conversations that your characters and cultures have.

2. Myths structure our idea of purity

Mythology also tells us what good and bad things are in society. Not all myths are concerned with simple binaries (regardless of what structuralists might think). But many of them identify what things are good and bad to have in a culture or give prescriptions for the kind of mind, body, or spirit to cultivate.

Returning to the American example, the political myth of our country includes a number of concepts about what kinds of governments are good and bad. Who should have the right to vote (which has changed over time) and with the Bill of Rights, attempts to map out the rights of citizens that are required to keep maintain a working political system.

Myths may or may not include the following

  • What things are we supposed to eat/avoid
  • What are good/bad/ideal sexual relationships or practices
  • Marriage patterns
  • Clean and dirty parts of the body and when or why you should wash
  • Important dates
  • Important people
  • How we mark or think about time
  • What kinds of intelligences are there (does nature have a will of it’s own? Is there an all-knowing being in the sky? Does a fox have human intelligence? ect.)
  • How many genders are there? Which one is in charge or are they equal? Are there more than two genders (recall part 2’s conversation about the Native American Two-Spirited system with up to five genders)
  • How was the world created?
  • Will it be destroyed? When? How?
  • What about disease? Is there germ theory? Is, like in the middle ages in Europe, smell associated with disease?
  • How about the question of suffering? Is there a being that makes suffering? Is suffering from ignorance? Is suffering a thing at all?
  • Is there free will?
  • How many lives do we have?
  • What words are sacred/dangerous?
  • Is there a certain style of dress or attire or tattoo or body modification that is considered sacred or taboo?
  • What is reality? Are we living in a giant theater performance? Do we live in a simulation like in the Matrix? Is there a better place to go when we die? A worse one? How do physics/magic/will structure reality?

You don’t have to include all of the above but you should at least consider them and their ramifications. Lots of tension and conflict in fiction can, like in the real world, arise for competing myth structures or provide interesting limitations that characters have to work with.

3. Myth legitimizes the present social order and system of power

Myth often offers an explanation for why people have the life conditions they do. In Hinduism for example, the Hindu caste system, and the breakdown of wealth and poverty is addressed in numerous Hindu texts. People are born into certain conditions because of consequences of their past lives. In Christian Europe it became popular for Kings to claim that they had a Divine right to be in their throne. In China, an emperor was thought to have a “Mandate of Heaven.” These are a mix of religious and political myth structures that allow those in power to continue to consolidate their power and claim a legitimate right to their station. Similarly in the United States we have the bootstraps myth, the idea that with hard work, you too can one day be wealthy and that often, the poor are lazy and unworthy of success. This myth goes back to Benjamin Franklin. (Check out this podcast “Poverty Myths Busted” on why it’s more complicated than the bootstraps myth suggests and also as an interesting study in myth-making and consequences.)

Your fictional world should include myths that have consequences related to power. Manifest Destiny was the myth structure that justified the Europeans conquerors actions during the 15th – 19th century. It claimed that God wanted Europeans to civilize the world and spend Christianity far and wide. That had some really deep and pretty awful consequences for non-Christians and non-Europeans. Empires always spread their myths. Even the Mongol empire which had freedom of religion and a secular state, still spread it’s myth about the mighty Genghis Khan and the legitimacy of their power.

4. Myths Explain The Nature of Reality

Myths can sometimes act as a kind of proto-science, that provides explanations for the state of reality. In the absence of scientific investigation (and even with it) Myths can provide us with the story of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. They can explain why man has two legs, why some creatures have different kinds of tales, what are good morals and values to have and provide limitations on what can/can’t do or can/can’t know. Myths can be flexible and empirical, based on the observation of individuals and experience, but they can also be fanciful and strange or even non-nonsensical to outsiders.

In writing your fiction, remember that even in a secular state, there are many competing myths. We still have creationists in the United States who argue the world is only 6,000 years old, along side scientific evidence that the world is 4.5 billion years old. Which leads me to…

5. Myths mark In Groups vs Out Groups and for the In Group bring Unity

Myths not only structure the way that people see the world and the elements above, but they also make clear cultural distinctions about who is a part of a group and who isn’t. Sometimes this can be as simple as, hey, I subscribe to that belief so I am part of the group. Sometimes, it can something like, in my mythology this particular group of people has different color skin because they are punished by god(s) (yes that’s a real myth story and has some obvious and very dangerous consequences). Myths can tell us, who is allowed to join in the community and who is a pollutant (back to that purity stuff) and a danger to the society. Thus, in your fiction, it can be a source of conflict. Perhaps the origin story of one group states that another group was created by an evil being hell bent on taking over the world. Enter your main character who suddenly finds themselves working with a person who they thought were inherently evil their whole life because of the myth structure they were raised on. Again, myths are a lens from which people see the world and how they order society.

And one final thing…

6. Myths are not monolithic

If you write a world where you have hundreds of thousands or millions of elves and they only have one myth story… you’ve got a serious problem. If you write an alien planet that has only one religion/language/myth/culture… you’ve also got a serious problem. Look around at all the myths in your own culture. How many religions are in the world? How many flavors of each of those religions that use different myth stories to justify their existence? If your cultures only have one myth and everyone agrees on it… that’s lazy and bad writing… unless you do it on purpose. If you do this, you will have to justify why you did it. Maybe there was some event in the past that forced everyone to agree on the same thing? But that has to be one hell of a justification. There are currently 42,000 denominations of Christianity in the world and some of them are very different from the days following the death of Jesus. Over the course of time, myth and politics and religions change. If you are doing one myth as social commentary, or a purposeful reason, make sure you have a good reason for doing it, otherwise it will just come of as lazy and/or bad writing.

If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a myth for your fictional world, make sure it has consequences. Nothing shows poor writing more then an amazingly well built myth structure that doesn’t impact your characters lives or adventures. Myths have weight. They are another arena to build good tension. Use them wisely.

Happy Writing!

Oh and Also, if you like sci-fi check out my books!

Unfinished

White Jigsaw Puzzle Illustration

A few weeks ago I went on an anthropology retreat with the High Plains Society for Applied Anthropology. What is an Anthropology Retreat? It’s a space for anthropologists and other social scientists to converse over issues in the field, their research, and trade ideas.

One of the things this retreat often features is a poetry writing workshop… The theme of the retreat was unfinished, and so I wrote a short poem in relation to the weekend and the concept that our work is always changing and growing and mutating. Here it is.

Unfinished…

Unfinished?

Why do we always feel like something unfinished leave us so diminished?

And How did it become an obscenity to consider our identity a fluent and ever changing entity?

It seems as if all of the threads that we must contend with force us to apprehend our knowledge

and suspend our disbelief that life has some kind of clear beginning and clear end.

It’s taken me a long time to accept the concept that I am part of the whole, not an individual soul or that I do play a role in this oppressive system of capitalistic control

I have to ask myself, What is the cost of this toll?

Life and culture is constant progress and process

I think the dead ends haunt us like an absess because we obsess with the mess and stress of maintaining false binaries that we aren’t allow to transgress

One or the other back and forth west and east, south and north.

We have to fit things in neat boxes before we set forth

But in outer space there is no single direction and often the project left unfinished is no real transgression

And sometimes the way forward is to stop and consider your own reflection

Especially if you yearn to learn the lessons as you pull that wheel for a uturn

But really, it’s okay to turn back and leave something unfinished

And since not much rhymes with unfinished? That’s where this poem is going to stay

17 Things I have learned teaching Cultural Diversity and Anthropology

Want more on Anthropology? Consider checking out our book Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers at Amazon.

This is a bit of a “Rules to live by” post I guess. I have spent the last six years of my life teaching both undergraduate and graduate students anthropology, culture, and diversity. In my classroom I try to make things as practical as possible. We can fill our students heads with theory all day long, but what I try to do is try to give a baseline understanding of how different cultures view the world so that when they encounter other people in work or out traveling the world, they can find a way to understand another person and prevent some of the conflicts and communication traps that we run into.

I find myself repeating a lot of the following over and over and so I thought maybe it would be useful to some of you out there. Of course, you can completely disagree with me (that’s kind of the point here) but these are things that if you apply them, you might be able to understand those difficult people in your life in a new way.

1. There is no glorious past when things were better. That’s a figment of the cultural imagination and based on the ideals we want in the present. There is no period in history, no culture in history that was ever perfection and/or paradise. Fantasies of the past are fun, but they are just projections on the wall in the great cave of our times.

2. Every culture, every religion, every language, is weird. We are all weird, our entire species is weird as hell. The only reason you don’t think your ideas/thoughts/beliefs are weird is because you are used to them.

3. If one group is disenfranchised, that means someone is benefiting. I.E. if Women are payed less, that means Men are paid more and reap the benefits. If people are treated poorly because they have darker skin, that means if you have light skin you benefit (even if it isn’t obvious). That’s what privilege is. It is not an attack on your character, people cannot help what system they were born into, but they can change it.

4. Everything has a cost, everything. Nothing is cost free. Every major world empire was built on, and is maintained by a river of blood. The very fact you live in this country at this time in history means you benefited from war, colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and all other manner of terrible things. But so has every other great empire. The Romans, the Islamic Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, they all did the exact same thing. So why teach them? Why talk about our mistakes and terror? Because I believe we can choose to be different. The first step is acknowledging that our culture did some fucked up things to other cultures.

5. Communication is really freaking hard. Words are really powerful. Everyone has words and images that they are sensitive to and trigger them (obviously survivors of trauma like many of my friends and myself have to spend a lot of time working through this) Figure out what yours are and watch your reactions. Sometimes just watching and understanding which words hit you hard can be a powerful tool for healing. But do remember, the only thing you can control is you. Life and most the world doesn’t care if you are triggered.

6. People are allowed to change. Something someone did 10 years ago does not necessarily reflect who they are now. Social media has created a distortion of static identity. Digging up ancient photos and tweets is only really useful if people are still exhibiting the same terrible behaviors now as they were then. Most of us go through a long hard process of testing ideas. This is normal and healthy, until you let your ideas take over and make you rigid.

7. Ignorance is not the problem in this world. Everyone is ignorant of something fundamental. Ignorance simply means to not know something. The problem is willful ignorance. When someone presents you with a new idea or a challenge to what you think about the world, take a breath. Let the emotional outrage simmer down and then try to approach it with calm and detachment and weigh all the evidence. Sometimes you might still be correct, and sometimes not. This is an uncomfortable but powerful process.

8. Being socially active, being mindful, being able to give back, boycotting products or getting an advanced education are all a privilege. Not everyone has access to these things. Remember again, that the only thing you can control is you. But also remember that you are powerful and that individuals are capable of making great (and terrible) changes to the world. You cannot force responsibility on other people and you should always remember that people face different barriers in life.

9. Read lots and from a wide variety of perspectives. Try and consider that you might be wrong about everything once in a while. It’s terrifying but sobering. Consider how little knowledge is contained in the entire human experience compared to the vastness of the rest of the universe.

10. Make sure you learn the difference between something that is opinion or cultural options (i.e. Monogamy or Polygamy are the best kinds of marriage) vs something that is objectively and verifiably true (I.e. The Earth is round). While your at it, learn about the scientific method and what good evidence is. Most things on the internet are easy to debunk with a little effort and awareness of your own bias.

11. Take a moment before you blame someone else for your problems or the problems of your culture. Yes, sometimes things are out of your control, structural violence absolutely exists, sometimes crazy random shit happens, and some people are unlucky, but if you keep seeing the same pattern over and over again, you might be a part of the equation. On a cultural level, if we are scapegoating people, who benefits? Blaming other populations for our issues, historically always turns out to be shortsighted.

12. Apathy and greed are deadly and destructive. A society that bases it’s institutions on these things will always have very serious problems. Empathy and generosity go a long way.

13. Listen to people’s stories. Share your own. If you don’t represent yourself, someone else will. Stories are how we save the world.

14. Diversity and difference is one of the most powerful tools in the human experience. Why? Because different people and cultures think about things in different ways. That means that there are many ways to approach complex problems. Sometimes we can’t see how to solve something because we are too close to it (personally or culturally).

15. There is no such thing as a homogeneous culture. People are people everywhere you go. Just because someone has the same language/religion/gender/nationality/income doesn’t mean they have the same inclinations or hopes or dreams. Each one of my children have different hopes and dreams about the future. Why would a group living on the other side of the world be any different? Don’t put people in boxes or make grand assumptions.

16. The is no one size fits all solution to anything. There is no single solution to solve any of the worlds major issues. All of history demonstrates this.

17. You are the bad guy, the evil empire, the oppressor, the asshole in someone’s story. No one in history is perfect. The people we claim as saints were either assholes earlier in life and grew from that or we are missing information. Plenty of people think I am an asshole. Plenty of cultures think Americans are terrible. No one ever thinks they are the asshole and every culture thinks they are they greatest ever.

I could probably think of more, but those are a lot of the things I find myself repeating most often. You, of course, are free to disagree, and of course comment and discuss.