It Takes a Different Person…

… to be a Christian.

… to be a Christian and then an atheist.

Not different like, “Um… that’s different.” Not a different kind of person — a different person, period – a person who’s been transformed into somebody else.

That was message losers like me got when we became Christians. It came in stentorian tones, right out of the Bible:

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Romans 12:2 ESV

Transformation is the ultimate makeover — a change to our form – how we’re shaped, constituted, put together. Transformation alters self and life by rewiring our brain and all the biological functions that feed it. It starts in our “mind” – sense of identity, worldview, perspective, biases — what we see and don’t see, the way we habitually experience the world — and extends from there to the entire ecosystem that is who we are and how we live, inside and out. On the inside, transformation is biological, neurological, physiological, chemical, hormonal. On the outside, transformation is sociological, communal, societal, institutional.

Formation is growing up and growing into. Transformation is growing out of and into something else. Transformation gets started lots of ways — trauma, financial and job stress, health issues, moves, big decisions, surprises — but belief might be the most powerful.

Belief is transformational by definition. Belief conforms us to its realities — we don’t just believe this or that, we become people who believe this or that. Once we become those people, we carry on life accordingly, alongside other like-minded believers. Belief shapes our minds individually and collectively, which shapes our behavior so that we think, do, see, say, and are the right stuff. Belief results in a constant, moment by moment steeping, soaking, marinating, saturating of the brain and the rest of our neuro-biological architecture with all the requisite doctrines and dictates, rites and rituals needed to generate conforming actions, experiences, thoughts, impressions, responses, and sensibilities, which in turn generate conforming identity and behaviors.

While that’s happening on the inside, everything on the outside goes with it. Life reshapes itself –environment, community, culture, customs – around what we believe, informing what we see, hear, and feel, what we’re surrounded with and immersed in, what we think about, our assumptions and expectations, how we respond emotionally, how we dress and decorate ourselves and our environments, who we hang out with and who we avoid, where we live and don’t live, what we own and don’t own, what we eat and don’t eat, what we wear and won’t be caught dead wearing, what we do for work and fun and… the whole package.

We learn to believe by growing into it physically –belief takes up residence in our cellular structure. The more we practice what we believe, the more our biological selves conform our experience of “reality” to what we believe. Since that belief-based “reality” authenticates what we believe, we believe it more fervently. And around we go in a self-reinforcing loop, becoming stronger and more rooted in our belief, inside and out.

Belief fully formed sinks its roots into the deepest, oldest, most evolutionary and instinctive parts of our brains, where it becomes a survival skill. At this point, our lives depend on what we believe. When our beliefs are threatened, we are at risk.

We believe, we live. We don’t believe, we die.

That’s why we hold our beliefs so fervently, defend them so ferociously — doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on belief keeps us safe. Belief does all that for our own good.

Belief makes sure we are assimilated.

Belief makes sure we stay assimilated.

And yes, resistance is futile.

We transform only when we have to. Transformation is about adapting and reacting, but our brains trend to status quo and predictability. Their default setting is entropy, the current trajectory. Left unchecked, transformation is ongoing, in constant movement. Our brains won’t allow it. So we hunker down, settle in, dig in, calcify, resist, isolate, polarize, fortify.

It takes psychic dynamite to dislodge our beliefs.

I had to become a new person to be a Christian. When I drifted away, I had to become a new person to not believe anymore. It’s not that the Christian person I used to be somehow came up with a different opinion about God. Instead, I became a different person –zapped, scrambled, rearranged, shifted – and God became irrelevant. To my former self, “atheist” was never an option. I didn’t choose it, I became it. I became a different person in a new place, with no way to get back. That different person was an atheist — a nonbeliever, one of the godless, the faithless, the backslidden. I didn’t decide my way into that much change. I had to be transformed to get there.

Transformation is change too big to be measured, described, or understood, — change that rampages, doesn’t respect, isn’t abashed. It had no problem propelling me to where I could never have possibly gone.

“Transformation” sounds so spiritual. We have this idea that it’s going to be cool – we’ll be more aware, enlightened. So we take vacations and patronize spas, head to a monastery for a week of silence. Churches sponsor retreats, corporations lay out five-star spreads for off-site strategic planning. It works: put yourself in a new setting, you think new thoughts, feel new feelings. What used to be unthinkable and impossible becomes your new to-do list. The new normal is imminent, yours for the taking — transformation on demand.

Then comes re-entry. Go away and get inspired, then try to take it back to the shop and everybody wants to know what you’ve been smoking. The old normal can’t tolerate it.

You forgot something. You can’t just paste all that newness on your old self, your old life. Do that, everything rips apart. You need to become new. The reason you’re not already doing the new thing is because you’re not a person or organization that does the new thing. If you were, you’d already be doing it. Duh. You want to do the new thing, you need to be transformed. You need to be made new so that you can do and be new. Trying to mix old and new just isn’t going to work. That’s in the Bible too:

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9: 16-17 ESV

Books about new wine and new wineskins were making the rounds in my early Christian days. They were books you could use at retreats – fodder for earnest conversations and strategizing — new spurred on by resounding sermon moments about how very Gospely everything was going to be.

Every now and then somebody would find out about St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and quote it in a sermon. You didn’t have to know who he was or actually read anything he wrote — the poetic phrase stood on its own. Apparently transformation could be a major downer. Well, maybe that worked for a 16th Century mystic, but the rest of us had jobs.

On the way out of Christianity I crashed for awhile in the self-help world and thought it would be cool to be one of those speaker, writer, consultant dudes. I got as far as writing some blog posts and making a few trips to do workshops. I got great reviews – earnest, beautiful “this seminar changed my life” reviews. But then I started to think I was actually ruining people’s lives, which is pretty much what had happened to mine. Transformation is messy, mean, uncaring. I didn’t wish it on anybody, so I started telling attendees that they would suffer if they tried to make big changes – they would find themselves in the throes of transformation. I warned them not to use the material because I knew it would work, and when it did they would regret it. I got the impression people thought I was doing a reverse psychology number on them. After awhile I quit doing the workshops. It was unethical to give people a great retreat experience and send them home knowing they would get clobbered and give up.

Who would submit themselves to the kind of transformation that would turn a commando Christian (me) into an atheist?

In a word, nobody. Not even me.

But then I did.

I’m not bragging. You can’t brag about an accident.

We all know we don’t change unless and until we have to. Which means the usual transformation catalyst is…

Trauma.

Me too.

We’ve all seen the major stressors lists. Mine were career, money, health. For starters. When trauma gets rolling, it likes company.

Trauma brings grief. Grief rewires our brains – it puts the stress response (flight or fight) in charge, furloughs the part that makes us feel we’re in control. Memory and strong emotions hog the stage, decision-making and planning move out. Fear about how we’re going to live without what’s been lost goes on permanent reruns we can’t shut off. We get disoriented, lose track of time and place. We go wandering, literally and figuratively. Our whacked out symptoms take up residence.

Trauma and grief stay until the dark night is over. Change catalysts like religious retreats and self-help seminars have the same effect — they suspend our status quo ties to “normal,” heighten emotions, promote reality-bending experiences, warp our risk tolerance, enhance receptivity to new versions of reality. But then the weekend is over and we go back home, where the symptoms quickly fade. We resent it, but it’s better than the alternative, which is trauma and grief staying with it until the job is done.

Trauma and grief is a potent cocktail of transformation. Drink it, and there’s going to be trouble. You’re going to suffer.

You might even lose your faith.

You might join the ranks of the nonbelievers and wonder what wormhole you went through to get there.

That’s what happened to me.

You might be next.

“Be the Change You Want to See” — Why Change MUST Always Begin With Us

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In the beginning, somebody…

Told a story. Made something. Made something that made things. Drew a picture. Used their voice melodiously. Moved a certain way and did it again. Took something apart, put it back together, and built another thing like it. Watched how weather and sky and flora and fauna responded to the passage of time. Sprinkled dry leaves on meat and ate it. Drew a line in the sand and beat someone who crossed it. Traded this for that. Resolved a dispute. Helped a sick person feel better. Took something shiny from the earth or sea and wore it. Had an uncanny experience and explained it.

And then somebody else did, too — and then somebody else after that, and more somebodies after that, until the human race had organized itself into families, clans, tribes, city-states, and nations, each with its own take on life in this world. Millennia later a worldwide civilization had emerged, organized around trans-cultural institutions of law, economics, science, religion, industry, commerce, education, medicine, arts and entertainment….

And then you and I were born as new members of a highly-evolved human culture of innumerable, impossibly complex, interwoven layers.

From our first breaths we were integrated into site-specific cultural institutions that informed our beliefs about how the world works and our place in it. Those institutions weren’t external to us, they were embodied in us — microbes of meaning lodged in our neural pathways and physical biome. Our brains formed around the beliefs of our culture — our neurons drank them in, and our neural networks were wired up with the necessary assumptions, logic, and leaps of faith.

These cellular structure informed what it meant for us to be alive on the Earth, individually and in community. They shaped our observations and awareness, experiences and interpretations, tastes and sensibilities. They defined what is real and imaginary, set limits around what is true and false, acceptable and taboo. And then they reinforced the rightness of it all with feelings of place and belonging, usefulness and meaning. When that was done, our brains and bodies were overlaid with a foundation for status quo — the way things are, and are supposed to be.

All that happened in an astonishing surge of childhood development. Then came puberty, when our brain and body hormones blasted into overdrive, dredging up our genetic and environmental beginnings and parading them out for reexamination. We kept this and discarded that, activated these genes instead of those. (The process by which we do that is called epigenetics, and it explains why your kids aren’t like you.) We also tried on countercultural beliefs. welcoming some and rejecting others. From there, we entered adult life freshly realigned with a differentiated sense of self, us, and them.

From there, adult life mostly reinforces our cultural beginnings, although the nuisances and opportunities of change periodically require us to make and reaffirm shared agreements in our communities, professions, workplaces, teams, and other groups, each time reaffirming and refining our shared cultural foundations. In doing so, we sometimes flow with the changing times, and sometimes retrench with nostalgic fervor.

Where does all this biological, cognitive, and social development and maintenance happen? In the only place it possibly could:  in the hot wet darkness inside the human body’s largest organ —   our skin. Yes, there is a “real world” out there that we engage with, but the processing and storing of experience happen inside — encoded in our brains and bodies.

be the changeWhich is why individual and cultural change must always begin with us — literally inside of us, in our physical makeup — because that’s where our world and our experience of it are registered and maintained. Gandhi’s famous words are more than a catchy meme, they describe basic human reality:  if we want things to change, then we must be transformed. Think about it:  we have no belief, perception, experience, or concept of status quo that is not somehow registered in our brains and bodies, so where else could change happen? (Unless there’s something like a humanCloud where it can be uploaded and downloaded — but that’s another issue for another time.)

The implications of locating human experience in our physical selves are far-reaching and fascinating. We’ll be exploring them.

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What Iconoclast.blog Is About

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I’ve spent the past ten years writing books, blogs, and articles on technology, jobs, economics, law, personal growth, cultural transformation, psychology, neurology, fitness and health… all sprinkled with futurism. In all those seemingly unrelated topics, I’ve been drawn to a common theme:  change. One lesson stands out:

Beliefs create who we are individually and collectively.
The first step of change is to be aware of them.
The second step is to leave them behind.

Beliefs inform personal and collective identity, establish perspective, explain biases, screen out inconsistent information, attract conforming experience, deflect non-conforming information and experience, and make decisions for us that we only rationalize in hindsight.

Those things are useful:  they tame the wild and advance civilization, help us locate our bewildered selves and draw us into protective communities. We need that to survive and thrive.  But they can be too much of a good thing. They make us willfully blind, show us only what we will see and hide what we won’t. They build our silos, sort us into polarities, close our minds, cut us off from compassion, empathy, and meaningful discourse.

Faced with the prospect of change, beliefs guard status quo against the possibility that something else is possible — which is precisely what we have to believe if we’re after change. Trouble is, to believe just that much threatens all our other beliefs. Which means that, if we want something else,

We need to become iconoclasts.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that “iconoclast” originally meant “breaker or destroyer of images,” originally referring to religious zealots who vandalized icons in Catholic and Orthodox churches because they were “idols.” Later, the meaning was broadened to “one who attacks orthodox beliefs or cherished institutions.”

Our beliefs are reflected, transmitted, and reinforced in our religious, national, economic, and other cultural institutions. These become our icons, and we cherish them, invest them with great dignity, revere them as divine, respect them as Truth with a capital T, and fear their wrath if we neglect or resist them. We confer otherworldly status on them, treat them as handed down from an untouchable level of reality that supersedes our personal agency and self-efficacy. We devote ourselves to them, grant them unquestioned allegiance, and chastise those who don’t bow to them alongside us.

Doing that, we forget that our icons only exist because they were created out of belief in the first place. In the beginning, we made them up. From there, they evolved with us. To now and then examine, challenge, and reconfigure them and the institutions that sustain them is an act of creative empowerment — one of the highest and most difficult gifts of being human.

Change often begins when that still small voice pipes up and says, “Maybe not. Maybe something else is possible.” We are practiced in ignoring it; to become an iconoclast requires that we listen, and question the icons that warn us not to. From there, thinking back to the word’s origins, I like “challenge” better than “attack.”  I’m not an attacker by nature, I’m an essayist — a reflective, slow thinker who weighs things and tries to make sense of them. I’m especially not a debater or an evangelist — I’m not out to convince or convert anyone, and besides, I lack the quick-thinking mental skill set.

I’m also not an anarchist, libertarian, revolutionary… not even a wannabe Star Wars rebel hero, cool as that sounds. I was old enough in the 60’s to party at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but then it failed like all the other botched utopias — exposed as one more bogus roadmap claiming to chart the way back to the Garden.

Sorry, but the Garden has been closed for a long, long time.

garden closed

A friend used to roll his eyes and say, “Some open minds ought to close for business.” Becoming an iconoclast requires enough open-mindedness to suspend status quo long enough to consider that something else is possible. That’s not easy, but it is the essential beginning of change, and it can be done.

Change needs us to be okay with changing our minds.

All the above is what I had in mind when I created Iconoclast.blog. I am aware of its obvious potential for inviting scoffing on a good day, embarrassment and shaming on a worse, and vituperation, viciousness, trolling, and general spam and nastiness on the worst. (Which is why I disabled comments on the blog, and instead set up a Facebook page that offers ample raving opportunity.) Despite those risks, I plan to pick up some cherished icons and wonder out loud what might be possible in their absence. . If you’re inclined to join me, then please click the follow button for email delivery, or follow the blog on Facebook. I would enjoy the company.

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