Individual creatures are suspended between the twinned determinisms of the genes and the world. In nature the individual is a carrier of genetic variation, a test case for the survival value in the environment of a specific randomly-generated genomic combination manifesting itself phenotypically. For any individual the environment includes conspecifics. But a pack or herd isn’t just a collection of individuals; the individual is genetically and irreducibly a social creature, capable of surviving and reproducing only among its fellow creatures. So the individual is thrice decentered: the genes, the world, the others.
Human individuals too occupy the genes, the world, and the collective. Human experience is uniquely mediated by intelligence, which transforms the individual expression of the genes into a self, the world into a reality, the collective into a society. The three human domains are yoked together through the uniquely human form of intelligence that is culture. Culture is remarkable in that, while it extends across the entirety of human society, each individual actively configures a personalized version of it and installs it in the brain. Language, understanding, history, tradition, exchange, organization, morality, invention, art — we live inside of culture, and culture lives inside of us. Communal culture is continually updating itself, incorporating countless incremental changes propagated across the species. Individual installations of culture also update themselves continually, emerging from the ongoing stream of encounters with the world and other people, as well as through the active reorganization of the individual mind. Culture is a cumulative installation, repeatedly ratcheting itself up from earlier, simpler iterations of itself — this is true both collectively and individually.
…Which brings us back to psychological practice. I’ve been talking about the self as a membrane, with therapy being a procedure for unclogging the membrane, facilitating the free transport of information, desire, intention, and so on between inside and outside. I wanted to de-emphasize the idea of self-as-entity and replace it with self-as-process. That still seems like the way to go. But the processes engaged in by the self are much more impressive than mere exchange between inside and outside. The self actively and continually transforms everything.
Culture isn’t a vast database stored in the archives of memory. When I want to write something I don’t make a series of selections from a memorized set of all conceivable English-language sentences, nor do I search through my dictionary and grammatical rule book for what I can say. Instead I construct a flow of language on the fly, assembling it from the various bits and pieces that make sense to say next. Language is more like a procedure, a way of transforming experience into communicable information. Similarly, morality isn’t a set of rules governing every possible situation; it’s a procedure for evaluating motives, decisions and actions on the fly, according to criteria that are relevant to the situation at hand.
We experience nothing in the raw. Everything that comes to us from the world, everything that goes out from us into the world, we subject to one or more relevant cultural procedures. This continual process of culturally transforming experience renders our interactions with the world meaningful. Meaning gradually accumulates in our past experiences; gradually our transformative procedures become more sophisticated.
We transform the world as we pass through it, subjecting it to a variety of procedures for embedding it in meaning. Every individual is a portal that opens onto multiple overlapping realities. The task of the practice isn’t just to unclog the flows between inside and outside. It’s to make sure the portal is working smoothly, flexibly, imaginatively, actively creating realities on the fly.