Is there a survival value to prejudice? ELIZABETH DENLEY explores how this destructive human behavior may have arisen, why it is so hard for us to let go of our prejudices, and what we can do to transcend them.
Most of us don’t think of ourselves as prejudiced, yet collectively we have created a world of judgment, family and community conflicts, religious differences, war, hatred and a glaring lack of global harmony. It is a world where fear is palpable in the atmosphere in many places.
Why and how does prejudice arise? According to yogic science, its roots are in the original samskara of fear that arose at the time of creation – fear of separation from the original state of oneness. As a result, we developed survival mechanisms to protect the individual “I”. We learnt to protect ourselves and shy away from threats, whether real or perceived. That is how the mammalian brain developed over millions of years. We learnt to exercise caution. We used the functions of the mind like intellect and thinking in order to make choices, based on the dualities of “right and wrong,” “good and bad,” “likes and dislikes,” “evolutionary and non-evolutionary,” “life and death.” Based on past experiences, we decided what was good and bad etc.
Is there is a survival value to prejudice from an evolutionary perspective? After years of observing, both as a biologist and a yogic practitioner, I would say the answer is yes, but only because we are not able to use our inner faculties, the full inner potential of our subtle bodies. The more we can use their potential through meditative practices, the more prejudice can be transcended.
Prejudice is pre-judgment. It is a deviation from a neutral response, where we pre-judge in a positive direction as partiality, or we pre-judge in a negative direction as prejudice. These “likes” and “dislikes” towards situations and people are based on cognates we have formed from our past experiences. If we are able to observe these reactions, we will recognize the deviations and adjust ourselves. It is like a tightrope walker who is constantly adjusting back to the state of balance.
It all hinges on our ability to discriminate wisely. Another word for this is discernment. Without a pure field of consciousness, discrimination is not possible. It doesn’t matter how intellectually great, how much knowledge we have, or how hard we try, it’s not possible to discriminate without purity. This is a very important clue to understanding why we develop prejudices – when we are not able to discriminate in the moment, instead we have to follow rules, and these rules are our pre-judgments.
Prejudice is pre-judgment.
It is a deviation from a neutral response,
where we pre-judge in a positive direction as partiality,
or we pre-judge in a negative direction as prejudice.
Say you have never experienced fire before. You might experiment by putting your hand in the fire, and you will very quickly learn not to do it again. Or if your mother once stuck her hand in the fire, she will teach you that fire is dangerous, and you will not have to undergo the experience yourself. This wisdom is passed down from generation to generation. We also have a collective consciousness that extends beyond us as individuals. In fact, over millions of years, the midbrain, which we share with other mammals, evolved to protect us from environmental danger. We learned to interact with the world through a negative lens. Our ancestors survived because they anticipated danger and stayed safe.
We are also connected at a deeper level through the heart, and so collectives of human beings have the ability to absorb knowledge from each other – by osmosis if you like – in the collective unconscious. And our minds go into patterns very, very easily. Our minds easily learn from collective experience. On one side we call that wisdom and adaptation, just as it is wise not to put your hand in the fire a second time.
But imagine now that your ancestors were at war with another community, and many of your family members were killed. Over generations the dislike has been passed down from generation to generation, even though the war was hundreds of years ago. You could still have a prejudice against this other community, even if they have changed since that time. Perhaps they are now loving and harmonious. Or what if your ancestors had actually been at fault and started the war, and the others were simply defending themselves? Would your prejudice be justified? There are many ethical dilemmas in this minefield of prejudice!
Wisdom emerges in a pure field of consciousness,
offering decisions that are relevant and useful in the present
for survival and well-being, whereas prejudice is colored and distorted.
Wisdom depends on the whole process of cognition:
from gathering information through the senses,
to processing it through the subtle bodies,
to the soul’s response.
So what is the difference between using the past cognates of experience in a wise way – e.g. not putting your hand in the fire – and using the past cognates of experience in a prejudicial way – e.g. hating a group of people because of a war that happened hundreds of years ago? The process of retrieving past cognates as a reference is the same, and the body responds to the mind’s learning process in the same way. If I am afraid of others without any real basis, the same hormonal responses and the same sympathetic nervous responses occur in my body as if I am afraid of a real threat. The body responds in the same way. So how to discriminate between useful pre-judgment and prejudice or partiality?
Wisdom emerges in a pure field of consciousness, offering decisions that are relevant and useful in the present for survival and well-being, whereas prejudice is colored and distorted. Wisdom depends on the whole process of cognition: from gathering information through the senses, to processing it through the subtle bodies, to the soul’s response. When the field of consciousness is pure, we can listen to the soul’s response through the heart, without the filters of emotion coloring our decisions. When the field of consciousness is turbulent and murky, can we trust that voice?
Listening to the voice of the heart takes courage. And if we don’t have that courage? Then it’s easier to follow a set of predetermined rules to feel safe – our prejudices – even if they are not relevant. Those rules come from our library of samskaras. Why is a person terrified of snakes? Perhaps in a past life he was bitten by a snake and died. It doesn’t mean that all snakes are bad or dangerous, but the person has created a rule to stay safe.
Spiritual evolution is all about change,
about letting go of the rules and
the boundaries that define our own creation.
So spirituality dismantles prejudice.
In fact spiritual progress is the antidote to prejudice,
because we cannot hold on to fixed beliefs
when we grow spiritually.
We’re dismantling our belief systems.
This is the basis of prejudice. And it is probably why we resist and fear change so much, because with change the rules change, and we no longer feel safe and secure. And of course spiritual evolution is all about change, about letting go of the rules and the boundaries that define our own creation. So spirituality dismantles prejudice. In fact spiritual progress is the antidote to prejudice, because we cannot hold on to fixed beliefs when we grow spiritually. We’re dismantling our belief systems.
Yet it is difficult because our minds are patterned with very deep samskaras. We can sometimes feel as if our very survival is threatened, because many of these tendencies have been created over lifetimes and in our early childhood. There can be so much resistance to the process of change. Tolerance, patience and, most of all, love are needed to get through it, because this is our evolution.
To explore the idea of spiritual progress being the antidote to prejudice, let’s look at what happens as we practice Heartfulness:
Meditation teaches us to become aware, to dive deeper into the heart, the feeling level of existence, and to observe the inner world. Meditation allows us to listen to the heart, which allows us to discriminate and develop wisdom. This is essential for removing prejudices.
Cleaning removes complexities and impurities from the field of consciousness, allowing discrimination to emerge.
Prayer creates a vacuumized field in the heart, in which wisdom can emerge from a neutral superconscious state. Prayer negates the ‘I’, as we are connected. We can’t feel superior or separate from anyone else in a prayerful state of being.
The Ten Maxims are a simple prescription to remove prejudice. They are designed to replace earlier cognates. One that exemplifies this beautifully is Maxim 9: “Mold your behavior and way of living to such a high order as to rouse a feeling of love and piety in others.” Ram Chandra explains that, on one hand, there is unity in Nature. We all have the same essence of Divinity. On the other hand there is diversity, where we are all different, we all have our various attributes, our genius. And anybody who can accept the unity and diversity in Nature will rouse a feeling of love and piety in others, effectively canceling out prejudice.
Constant Remembrance keeps us connected in a meditative state throughout the day and night. It is preventative, as the field of consciousness cannot accumulate complexities and impurities.
These spiritual practices allow us to look inward and purify the heart. Otherwise how will the heart discriminate? And when it can’t discriminate it resorts to pre-judging.
Over the years, I have learnt to see the dismantling of my prejudices as a barometer of my evolution. And when I can’t see my own patterns, other people are there to help – what I don’t like in others is a mirror of myself; what I am partial to in others is also a mirror of myself. That is a boon from Nature that allows me to change. It’s an opportunity for growth. In this, there is hope and vision for humanity.
Excerpts from a talk given in August 2013 in a seminar for North American Heartfulness practitioners. Edited for publication.
Article by ELIZABETH DENLEY