Decolonize Your Mind

Your thoughts are not your own. Many of your most private, most personal thoughts are not actually yours at all.

Think about it: you are no more the creator of your mind than you are of your body. Though you can influence your body’s shape and vitality and functioning through the ways you use it, you didn’t create it. It was given to you to by birth and biology. Your mind is the same way. It started off unimaginably plastic and pliable, until the community you grew up in installed a cultural operating system, one built on top of countless layers of previous, historical operating systems. The kinds of thoughts you now think, and the kinds of thoughts you can’t even imagine thinking, are a function of how your mind has been colonized.

You can reclaim your mind. You can take it back. It’s been colonized for so long, however, that it’s hard to even know where to begin. We have become entirely complicit with the mental regime installed by our colonizers. We can’t easily tell which thoughts are ours and which ones we were programmed to think.

How do you decolonize your mind? You have to begin by questioning some of the most basic ideas you take for granted every day. Here, let me give you some examples . . .

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Decolonize Your Mind
Steve Bearman
February 18, 2014

You probably think that your thoughts are yours. After all, they are in one sense the most personal and private thing you've got. No one else has direct access to your thoughts but you. So you have a sense of ownership, even control over your thoughts. And yet in another sense, our thoughts are not ours at all. Our thoughts, the ones that we take for granted in our everyday thinking, are a product of layers of history and culture, overlaid on top of our human nature. If someone was born into a human body with the same kind of brain that you have twenty thousand years ago, they would be incapable of thinking the kinds of thoughts that you are thinking. Even somebody a thousand years ago when this temple behind me was built, wouldn’t be able to think those thoughts. The thoughts that you think are yours, are in part yours and in part a product of the extent to which your mind has been colonized. Decolonizing your mind requires deconstructing very basic ideas that you think everyday. For instance, you probably think that you have a relationship, or that you’ve had relationships or that you’re looking for a relationship. "Relationship" is a concept that you take for granted. But even a few generations back, relationships didn’t exist. No one had a relationship. People were married, and that meant something very specific, depending on what part of the world you were in. But no one had this vague sort of "relationship" thing that we have. But when you think you have a relationship, that is actually based on some ideas about gender roles, and division of labor, and the sexism that accompanies them, about ownership of one person by another, and a kind of exclusivity around the relationship and the family structure that keeps that in place. Now are those really your thoughts about relationship? Or are they thoughts that you were conditioned with? And do they produce, as a result, things like jealousy and possessiveness, infidelity and codependence? Do you want to think about relationships that way? If you deconstruct this culturally based concept, is it possible that relationships can occur in ways that are more fluid? More multi-dimensional, that you could have many different kinds of relationships that interweave intimacy and sexuality, or commitment and family, in ways that you have not yet conceived of? To find out requires you deconstruct a basic concept you may think of as your own thought. Another example of this is: do you have a "life"? Do you think you have a life? You know people say things to each other like, "How's your life going?" Or people get all upset and say things like, "What am I going to do with my life?" This whole notion that you have a life is not really a foregone conclusion. It's a particular curious way of constructing your experience of the world, and of historical events from your life, and projected future events, and assembling them into a particular package called a "life". But this package comes from a historical context, in which your life is based on what it is you that do for a "living". That's why we call it that. Your job, your role in society, that allows you to participate in a social structure that has a particular hierarchy and a particular structure of power in which we need people to take on different jobs and to identify with those jobs. So your relationship with your job, and to some extent your family, is what determines your experience of your "life" that you think you have. Are those really your thoughts? Is that how you really want to think about life? Or did those somehow get implanted and conditioned? And do they produce things like a sense of competitiveness with other people, who you're always looking around at to see - are you doing better than them, or not as well as them? Or does it produce a kind of lack of self worth that comes when people are constantly seeing whether or not they've met certain developmental milestones that you think you should have met by now, but perhaps you haven’t? Is it possible that life could be something that's more dynamic, that's more unpredictable, that’s more subtle, than all of that, that's an ongoing thing that’s happening that may not be a function of your past at all? These things that we think we know, in fact knowledge itself, is another example of this. You know, do you really know things? What’s true? What’s fact? And what’s your basis for believing what you think of as true or fact? I mean, that comes from a cultural context too, where certain kinds of fact are handed down by scripture and must be taken on faith. Or maybe you believe that fact and truth is only determined by people who use something called the "scientific method", which allows them to determine what's true. Or maybe you’ve got a post-modern kind of relativistic notion that there is no real truth, that it just depends on your cultural standpoint? Are those your thoughts, or are they thoughts that were given to you that leave you with a way of thinking about knowing that's kind of rigid, that kind of keeps you stuck in old ideas instead of constantly able to stay creative and flexible and able to have a mind that's open and able to do extraordinary things? The joys of decolonizing your mind are the joys of deconstructing every little thought that you have, so that basic notions like love and sex and relationship and family, or career and money and life, are all things that are up for grabs. Everything can be questioned. And in the process of questioning those, you can end up with relationships that are more fluid, that are more multi-dimensional; with a quality and experience of life that is more dynamic and more subtle; with ways of knowing that are more flexible and more creative. So if you're not somebody who already appreciates the great joys of deconstruction, please take them on with me. If you decolonize your mind, and find out how to evolve, and think the kind of thoughts that you weren't already given, so much more is possible. And it's much more fun!

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.