It is my pleasure to present the first and long-awaited interview with Jessie Christenson, the world-renowned author and playwright. Jessie’s work is often acclaimed for its authenticity and remarkable insight into the dynamics of human personality and culture. In this interview, I’ll try to drill down and tap into the source of knowledge that allows him to create remarkable works of art that have garnered almost every literary award worth mentioning. For brevity, I’ll simply use initials to indicate who is speaking. The following is a transcript of the live interview done with Jessie over Zoom. Subscribers can watch the video of the interview on the Night Owl web site. Let’s dive in.
NO: Jessie, can you fill us in a little on your background. I have heard that both of your parents were cultural anthropologists. Were you able to spend much time with them as you grew up?
JC: Yes, both of my parents were anthropologists. They spent a lot of time in the field studying indigenous people and especially their language and culture. I was fortunate to be able to go along on all of their expeditions.
NO: You obviously are educated, so how was this accomplished in the field?
JC: Pretty much the way education took place for most of human history. You might think of it as a community effort. I was taught formal skills such as composition, grammar, mathematics and science by my parents. Most of my formal education was through independent study materials under the supervision of my parents. However, there was a much broader informal dimension to my education that came from immersion in the culture around me and guidance from members of the indigenous community.
NO: Was there any informal component in particular that was, in your view, especially important to your development as a writer?
JC: Yes. I think the experience that was most transformative for me was an extended expedition that my parents undertook to study a group of indigenous people who were very isolated and had had very limited contact with the world outside of their village.
NO: How long did this extended expedition last?
JC: We lived among The People for six years.
NO: That is a long time for a kid. How old were you during this period?
JC: I lived with The People between the ages of 12 and 18.
NO: You refer to your hosts as The People. Do they have a name?
JC: Of course, but their name for themselves, in their language, simply means The People. Thus, I just refer to them as The People because the word in their language is difficult for English speakers to pronounce and would be a meaningless sound in any case.
NO: So, what was the nature of the transformative educational experience that you had while living with The People?
JC: It was grounded in a relationship that developed between myself and a person that I will call the village shaman, though The People used a different name. Their shaman was a very old and very wise woman who served as a combination physician and spiritual guide. Before you ask her name, I’ll just say that I came to simply call her by the word in The People’s language for grandma.
JC: Yes. Many of the young people in the tribe referred to her in that way, and I did as well. Also, she was certainly old enough to be my grandmother, and given our life style, I had little opportunity to cultivate a relationship with my actual grandmothers who were thousands of miles away for most of my life.
NO: OK. So, Grandma it is. What did you learn from Grandma that gave you such a deep insight into people and their ways?
JC: At first, I just hung around her some when I wasn’t doing schoolwork. After a year or so, I had picked up enough of the language for simple communication. She began to take an interest in me and helped me with the language. Eventually, I became adept enough with the language and the culture that I was able to question her about her activities. This is when she began to mentor me in her perspective on the world and when my true education began.
NO: What did you learn from her that was so transformative?
JC: To begin with, she began teaching me about the nature of the world as she understood it. She talked about what would translate into English as “spirits.” The basic system she taught was that all life is the manifestation of what I would describe as an energy field, though in her language it was called the spirit realm. Humans, she taught, have seven major points of connection with this field. In her terms, we are potentially under the influence of seven spirits. Each connection links to what might be described as a drive or program. Again, Grandma talked in terms of the guidance or influence that flowed from each of these spirits. How you function depends on which of these connections (spirits) is dominant.
NO: What was it about this system that she taught you that gave you such a solid grasp of human beings’ motivations and behaviors?
JC: I learned from her that virtually all of humanity is dominated by one of three programs or drives.
NO: So, pretty much everyone is driven by one of these three programs or drives?
JC: That isn’t quite right. Everyone is dominated by one of the three, but the other two serve in a supporting role. Thus, the underlying dynamic is a triad. Think of a triangle where the focus is the apex of the triangle.
NO: What are these three basic drives or programs?
JC: Each of the core drives can be associated with a function. The first is safety. The second is sex. The third is status.
NO: So, these three drives are all that one needs to understand human motivation and behavior?
JC: Yes, or at least almost. There are other connections that can activate and come into play, but the vast majority of human beings and their cultures are entangled in these three core programs.
NO: Okay, let’s take one of them and unpack it. Why not the first one — safety.
JC: Fine. Safety is a biological imperative. If one isn’t safe then there is little if any hope for success at sexual reproduction or of achieving social status. The drive for safety leads to fear of anything that can be imagined to pose a threat. Most individuals and most cultures are strongly influenced by fear. From fear comes suspicion of others and their motives. This in turn leads to defensiveness, which can be no more than a psychological attitude or can progress to more overt forms. Fear- driven defensiveness leads to prejudgments about people, usually grounded in superficial characteristics such as race, ethnicity or class. The result is an “us” against “them” mentality.
NO: I think I see how fear unfolds from a drive for safety in individuals. How does this translate into culture?
JC: Fear at the cultural level is usually exhibited as aggressiveness, which can range from violent behavior to “friendly” competition. You know the old saying that the best defense is a good offense. Culturally, this aggressiveness will show up in some sports, movies, television and video games, to name a few. On another level, one can see it clearly in institutions such as police forces, Homeland Security and in military organizations. All of these institutions need an “enemy” to employ their protective mandates against. These can range from criminals, individuals from a cultural outgroup, terrorists who are acting out of their own safety drive and fear and finally, state actors who can be cast as a large scale evil that threatens the nation and are targets for major military campaigns, or at least preparation for one.
NO: This drive appears to be almost fractal in the way that it grows and expands into evermore complex patterns that acquire all kinds of rationales as it evolves. But, if we understand this, isn’t that the key to deconstructing it?
JC: You and I might be able to deconstruct it, but most people are totally oblivious to the underlying dynamics. They see only the surface manifestations without ever drilling down to the roots from which these surface manifestations spring. One might say they act as if they are blind or asleep.
NO: I think I’m beginning to understand what some people mean by “waking up.” Let’s delve into another drive. What about the second drive? What about sex?
JC: This one is much easier to observe because it has become ubiquitous, in Western life, through mass media. Evolution has given humans a strong sex drive that is largely motivated by pleasure, but there are some other factors such as a commonly experienced biological impetus in women for children. The underlying purpose of sex is reproduction, but pleasure is a potent reinforcing motivation for engaging in sex, which frequently results in conception whether intended or not.
NO: Modern contraceptives seem to have undermined this drive to a large extent, as evidenced by falling birth rates around the globe.
JC: That is true, and it may be a good thing given the pressures of over population. However, a decline in reproduction will have no impact on pleasure-driven sex as a major motivating drive. While reproduction was the primary evolutionary goal, the method used to achieve it continues to apply with or without reproduction.
NO: So, with reproduction declining, what other role does the sex drive play in motivation and culture?
JC: A very big role. Think about all the permutations that sexuality has undergone. If you examine the stories that surround biologically based sex-related behavior, what you see is an explanation generated by culture with individual adaptation to the cultural story about that behavior.
NO: Could you give an example of what you mean by cultural explanations or cultural stories?
JC: Sure. Take for example sexual attraction. The biology of sexual attraction is designed to direct one toward sexual partners that are likely to produce viable and successful offspring. This is a biological program that the individual and culture needs to explain. You have this set of preferences and behaviors that seem to mysteriously arise from outside of awareness. The individual experiencing them didn’t arrive at these preferences and related behaviors by any rational or thoughtful process. They just asserted themselves. The human ego evolved to mediate between our internal programs and the environment. The ego likes to feel it is in control of what is going on. A spontaneous arising of preferences and behaviors demands an explanation that rationalizes them. Early on in our species history, individual egos set out to generate a plausible explanation or story governing how these preferences and behaviors are actually “chosen” by an individual. Over time these individual stories aggregate into a cultural explanation and individuals acquire the story through enculturation.
Once the explanation or story is in place, it is dynamic. This means that it evolves and adapts over time and may become, to some degree, divorced from the biological program, which was its initial reason for being. Thus, we see different cultures employ somewhat different stories and different expectations based on those stories but almost never a variation that is contrary to the biological imperative for reproduction. The dynamic nature of these stories also results in all sorts of effects. Explanations for sexual attraction lead to effects on social behaviors, mannerisms, notions of attractiveness, clothing styles, hair styles, cosmetics and grooming in general, which in turn impacts businesses, entertainment and the economy. Thus, the fractal nature of the permutations referred to earlier.
NO: Well, that is fascinating. I had never thought about how so much of what permeates everyday life is actually generated by a basic biological program. Can you give a couple of more examples?
JC: OK. Another permutation with its origins in the basic biological program that motivates reproduction also impacts what culturally we often label “mother love.” There is a biological program that kicks in when the sex drive achieves reproduction. Hormonal changes are elicited in both sexes, but especially in the female, that has a bonding effect between the mother and the child. Along with this bonding effect comes a “halo effect” so that the child is viewed as “perfect or precious.” The hormonal changes also produce a strong positive affect toward the child. These feelings motivate nurturance and protection of the child so that it can develop into an adult and repeat the process. This whole process has been explained through the cultural stories concerning the “joys” of motherhood, the “gift” of children, the importance of family, and so on. However, to keep things brief, I’ll bring this example to a close. Based on the discussion above, I think you and your audience can work out any further details for yourself.
Briefly, I’ll mention one more cultural theme tied to the basic sex program embedded in our biology. This one relates to the cultural stories or rules that have evolved to manage marriage and family. The rules relating to marriage generally are tied to the story about sexual attraction. Under the best of conditions, the cultural story about who one should be attracted to and why are interfaced with who one should marry. For example, in some cultures, the story employs the notion of “romantic love” to tie together the rules of attraction and marriage. In other cultures, the story employs the notion that this is a matter for the family to decide based on the “better judgment” of the parents. In such cases, the role of economics and social status have become the dominant themes in the story. This can create conflict when the cultural story doesn’t interface very well with the “laws of attraction” grounded in the basic biological program. You can no doubt think of other stories.
NO: Your mention of social status reminds me that status is the third program or drive that you mentioned as forming the basic motivational triangle. Let’s talk a little about this program.
JC: OK. The next step in the base motivational triangle is social status. The drive for status within the social group has obvious ties to the other two programs, that is, safety and sex. Status is one way of enhancing one’s importance to the social group and thereby gain better control of resources needed for safety. Status also generally plays a role in determining one’s attractiveness as a sexual partner.
NO: So, social status is basically a way to enhance one’s position relative to safety and sex?
JC: Yes. You can see the importance of status by looking at almost any social organization, whether it is social class, professional, religious, business, political, military or some other type of social organization. All of these organizations have hierarchies based on the relative prestige of the levels in the hierarchy, usually based on the associated decision-making power, economic power or a combination of both.
NO: Can you give us a couple of examples?
JC: Sure. Take one of the most obvious such as a military organization. Almost everyone is already generally familiar with the ranking structure in a military organization. Clearly, as one’s rank rises, decision-making power increases as well as income. The relationship of military organizations to national safety or defense issues is obvious.
NO: Yes, that one is pretty obvious. How about one less obvious?
JC: How about a social institution such as academia. This is an institutional structure about which a lot of people have only a vague knowledge but is as complex or more complex than a military organization. I won’t bore you with a lot of detail, but there is hierarchy between institutions and specialty areas within institutions. This is further stratified by ranks within the teaching faculty and research faculty. Institutional administration is largely independent of faculty and has a hierarchy of its own. This could be explicated further, but I think you get the idea. You can drill down for the complete details easily enough, if motivated to do so. Decision-making power exists within these institutions, but the institutions as represented by individuals within them also can exercise power in the society at large. One example would be consultants whose expertise and opinions are widely sought and respected by people in government, business and even the military.
NO: Let’s see if I can summarize this for our viewers. Almost everyone is controlled by three basic biological drives or programs. These are safety, sex and status. The first ensures that one reaches sexual maturity and at least has a chance to become sexually active, which increases the probability of the second (reproduction). The third provides a method for improving one’s chances for safety and of becoming sexually active. All of this is to a large degree opaque due to the degree of cultural elaboration built up on these three basic programs. The cultural customs, taboos and formal rules are secondary to the basic programs but help explain, structure and justify the behavior motivated by the basic programs. Most of us are totally absorbed in playing out our lives within the cultural narrative that we live in and using that narrative to derive contextual meaning for our lives. Most people are “blinded” for their entire lives by their identification with cultural and personal narratives.
JC: That seems like a fair summary. Keep in mind that the secondary elaboration on these three basic programs is very diverse and complex, which makes the basic processes less obvious than one might suppose. This complex is often what is meant when we invoke the concept of “world.” The world in this sense is a complex of ideas, concepts, beliefs and expectations that govern a drama called “human culture and civilization” performed on a stage called earth.Whatever aspect of the world you might have a question about, you could do worse than deconstructing it with the goal of finding the underlying biological programs and how they relate to the phenomenon motivating your question.
NO: In your comments, you have hedged a bit here and there about just how pervasive is our entanglement in cultural and personal narratives. Do you wish to comment on that?
JC: All right. I have hedged about pervasiveness because there are always a few people, during any period of time, who rise above cultural and personal narratives and see beyond them.
NO: How do these people rise above narratives?
JC: These people are known in some circles as awake. What they have awakened to is their narratives and their entanglement within them. Once awakened, the individual gains a new perspective on life that helps him or her see through the filters imposed by personal and cultural narratives. One also becomes more aware of the basic drives or programs underlying the narratives and thereby less subject to their demands.
NO: So they are no longer responsive to narratives and their underlying programs?
JC: They may still respond to bio/social narratives with discernment when necessary. Just because one can see clearly that one is living in a complex drama doesn’t mean that it no longer can affect you. Thus, to live in the “world” is of necessity to play a part in the drama. However, even one who is aware of being an actor in a complex drama must be careful not to get lost in the drama. This is best avoided by acting only in situations where it is truly necessary, acting as impeccably as possible and having no expectations about the outcome. In short, not getting emotionally attached to any one possible outcome in the situation. One might described this approach as being in the world through a state of “compassionate indifference.”
NO: I see how acquiring an objective perspective on learned personal and cultural narratives can be liberating. However, can one liberate oneself from biological programs?
JC: Yes, however, I would like to point out that we are all threads of Consciousness making use of complex biological avatars that have evolved specifically to provide us a vehicle through which we can gain experience. Thus, one should not have as a goal to liberate oneself from biological programs just because such liberation is possible, at least in some cases. To be aware of biological programs and how they operate through you is desirable. To selectively choose, on a rational basis, not to be “driven” by a biological program is reasonable. Tinkering with a biological program, when such tinkering is possible, can be justified. This is clearly another case for the application of discernment.
I also would make a distinction between biological programs. There are what the researcher John Lilly called “death” programs that simply can’t be eliminated, for example, the program that lies behind thirst. Then there are all the other innate biological programs such as those related to sex and reproduction. Finally, there are acquired programs that have a biological substrate but aren’t in and of themselves innate, for example, addictions. Discernment can be applied to both biological and learned narratives. One does not have to respond to impulses arising from biological impulses, whether they are innate or acquired, as is the case with addictions. One can even choose not to respond to impulses from “death” programs but only for short periods of time.
NO: I would imagine that it is difficult to choose not to respond to biological impulses.
JC: Some impulses are, of course, more powerful than others, and this can vary across individuals. However, the first step is to inhibit an automatic reaction to the impulse. I should say here that a distinction needs to be made between impulses and reflexes. When you have an impulse to eat a piece of cake or smoke a cigarette, that is different from a reflex that pulls your hand back from something hot.
One probably should not try to inhibit a reflex unless it is clear that the reflex is dysfunctional. There are ways of “unlearning” or counterconditioning reflexes that have become associated with inappropriate eliciting antecedents. However, in the case of unwanted impulses, modification or even elimination is possible. One can sometimes inhibit emitting a response by “force of will,” which is a skill that is poorly developed in most people and may actually have the opposite result. That is, trying to will the impulse away places intense attention on it and this can actually give it strength. But, if that works for you, then go with it.
Another approach is becoming present with something other than the impulse that is in the moment. Think of this as a diversionary tactic. For example, becoming absorbed in the smell of a flower, the sound of a bird chirping or watching your pet play with a toy. It doesn’t matter as long as it is available now. Of course, it is easy to be present with the impulse but becoming present with the impulse is a bit like unpacking a thought and becoming entangled in it. It takes over. Keep your attention off of the impulse even though you may still be aware of it. If not given attention, it will naturally subside just as it naturally arose — independent of your volition.
One caveat, if you have developed your ability to monitor your thoughts, emotions, impulses and so forth objectively as a mere observer or witness, then you can successfully give that form of attention to an impulse as a way of letting it run its course without responding to it. Many dedicated meditators have acquired this mode of self-monitoring but most people can’t do it.
NO: Does “waking up” imply arriving at some other level of motivation?
JC: Yes, at least in a manner of speaking. There are “spiritual energies” that lie above the basic programs. One of these is compassion.
NO: Could you elaborate a bit on compassion?
JC: Yes. Compassion is a combination of empathy and a predisposition toward supportive actions. A deep feeling of compassion can lead to living a life rooted in unconditional acceptance of others and a willingness to help them, if possible. This means acting from Love, not to be confused with biological bonding or cultural notions of love, whether romantic, religious or familial.
NO: How does the transformation from living through personal and cultural narratives to living through compassion come about?
JC: The core levels are bio/social and mostly reactive. Spiritual unfolding takes one through Grace. One can, however, prepare oneself to be ready to best take advantage of Grace, if it happens. Compassion (a.k.a. the state of “I AM-ness”) is a midpoint between the core motives and true spiritual unfolding. I often refer to this state as the natural mind by which I mean one has reacquired the ability to enter unconditioned awareness.
NO: What do you mean by reacquire?
JC: Infants and very young children live in a state of unconditioned awareness. This is sometimes described as a state in which bottom-up perception dominates. This state is eroded as the core motives are activated and especially when these begin to elicit an evolving personal narrative and to engage the extant cultural narrative.
What begins to develop with narration is a large repertoire of conditioned or learned ways of seeing and responding to events within oneself and the environment. With this development there is a shift toward top-down perception. In short, perceptions are filtered through both personal and cultural constructs or, as some might say, through stories about the world and ourselves. Thus, if one learns to voluntarily shift from top-down perception into bottom-up perception, then one can be said to have reacquired a previous state of being.
NO: Since you use the term “reacquire,” I assume that this is neither a reflexive state or a state of Grace?
JC: Correct. This is something that one can directly influence.
JC: First, you need to carefully observe and consider the drama unfolding through your life and come to see and recognize when learned constructs are guiding your perceptions. When those constructs are recognized, especially as dysfunctional, you need to desensitize yourself to their control over your thoughts, emotions and behavior. Contemplative and meditative practices, among others, can be useful in initiating and working through this process.
Second, you need to work toward learning to make decisions and take actions using discernment. By this, I mean seeing situations as they actually are, not as they are construed through narrative filters, and then arriving at an appropriate response. In many cases, an appropriate response will be no response. In other cases, if your compassion arises, you take the most compassionate response available to you.
Third, your response should be performed with impeccability and followed with equanimity. The former means to the very best of your ability and the latter means without an emotional attachment to the outcome. Equanimity is especially important because it is your defense against becoming entangled in the narrative context that you have, of necessity, engaged.
NO: What are the transformations beyond compassion?
JC: There are three states beyond I Am-ness. The fifth state is Self-realization by which is meant that one experiences one’s higher Self or a state of pure being. After that comes what some might call God Consciousness or Christ Consciousness, in which one fully experiences non-duality and Divine Love. Finally, there is Unity Consciousness, in which one experiences merger with the whole and knows that ultimately there is nothing but Source, Consciousness or God, as you will. A state of Love-Bliss.
NO: Wow. That takes us a long way from where we started. Would you care to elaborate on any of these?
JC: Not really. These last three conditions, in particular, affect very, very few people and play little role in coming to see how I understand humanity and express that understanding in my work. However, if enough people were to work toward and reacquire their natural mind, civilization and humanity would be transformed for the better regardless of what transformations may lie beyond.
To open, I have no problem with rational controls on the purchase, possession and carrying of firearms. I will stipulate to the fact that some gun violence is no doubt due to the ready availability of guns. However, to be clear, a gun is nothing more or less than a mechanism. A mechanism designed to threaten, injure or kill, but a mechanism nonetheless. It is an inert metal artifact devoid of meaning except that which one imposes on it. Thus, many meanings, both good and bad, attach to guns.
I think that gun control efforts are, for the most part, confusing means with causes. It is, in my view, analogous to thinking that the obesity epidemic can be solved by taxing certain foods or that drug abuse can be stopped by criminalizing drugs. From my experience, gun controls, food taxes and drug laws will not and have not stopped violence, obesity or drug abuse.
So, why do we pursue such strategies? Because they are easy targets. It is like the proverbial drunk who has lost his keys and is searching for them under a street light because he can see better there. The real solution is much more complex and therefore more difficult and expensive to accomplish. The most important question to ask in all these cases is why? Why is someone violent? Why is someone obese? Why does someone abuse a drug? The answer is never simple and seldom the same across cases.
I accept that there very well may be some commonalities among perpetrators of gun violence, and easy access to guns might be one of them. A commonality that I think that has just as much if not considerably more influence on gun violence is being socialized in a culture that is grounded in violence. At least in my lifetime, which is inclusive of the majority of living Americans, this country has been poised on the edge of violent confrontation or actually at war. Our history is replete with violence, beginning with the genocide perpetrated against indigenous people for our own advantage and the enslavement of millions of people to exploit the land and resources that we took from and are still taking from indigenous people. Our country has the largest military in the world. We spend more on arms than any other country in the world. We sell more arms to other countries than any other country in the world, including to some countries that we know do not want them purely for defensive purposes. We also have the highest rates of personal violence of any other developed country. We have the highest proportion of our population incarcerated than any other developed country. Our entertainment media are saturated with glorified violence. Granted, some of this has elicited moral outrage and produced improved behavior at times, but one should not be in the position of having “good” behavior motivated by a guilty conscience. Further, I don’t doubt that this country has done some positive things in the world, but they are far out numbered by our less than righteous behavior. We are masters at antagonizing other peoples and then blaming them for resisting our goals.
Let’s return to the more immediate issue of gun violence. Several years ago some statisticians looked at the probabilities for various outcomes in the U.S. One question they asked was, “Where is an adolescent or young adult most likely to be murdered?”. Murdered in this case often means shot to death. The expected answer was in an inner city ghetto of a major city. The actual answer was in rural areas in the western U.S. While they listed a number of factors that were associated with this unexpected outcome, an important factor was the cultural expectation that to be a “man” one must handle one’s own problems. In most cases, “handle” meant to seek and achieve retribution or revenge for a perceived wrong.
The above example illustrates the complexity of dealing with gun violence. Many factors appeared to contribute to the use of violence to “handle” wrongs. Availability of firearms was one factor but so too were cultural expectations that endorse violent solutions. In addition, these two factors were accompanied by other setting factors such as lack of community cohesion, economic stress, little or no law enforcement presence and alcohol abuse. What happens if you leave all these factors in place and make guns more difficult to obtain? Probably there is some reduction in gun violence, but violence can be perpetrated by far too many means to ever control by trying to eliminate the means. If not with guns, violence can be accomplished with fists, clubs, knives, poisons, explosives, fire bombs and even automobiles. The list is not inclusive by any means. I can recall examples of individual and multiple deaths affected through all of these means in this country during my lifetime.
In the case of school shootings that seem to spark the most fervor about gun control, I would suggest that school culture as a setting factor is just as important, if not more important, than the availability of guns. A school culture that permits or ignores threat, intimidation, humiliation, coercion and physical violence won’t be solved by gun control. A school curriculum that fails to motivate and engage every student in learning perceived as meaningful to the student won’t be solved by gun control. A school that fails to provide access to adequate services for students with difficulties, whether related to learning or behavior, won’t be solved by gun control. Gun control is merely one small component in the larger task at hand.
In conclusion, I would suggest that the issue will not be an easy one to resolve. It will not be easy because in the final analysis both sides are largely driven by fear. Gun control advocates, at root, feel threatened by civilians with guns. Gun rights advocates feel threatened by a range of phenomena and seek security through guns. When fear motivates both sides in an argument, rational discussion is unlikely to prevail. Thus, the debate becomes a power struggle to see who can impose its will on whom. Not a recipe for a congenial social order.