Shifting Paradigms (Part 1)

Dr Rishi Vivekananda Saraswati

Last year I was due to do a three week lecture tour of Morocco, and as that is a Muslim country, and I didn't know much about Islam, I decided to learn something about it. In one article on Islam, the writer pointed out that being a practising Muslim is the person's whole identity. Rather than identifying himself or herself as a doctor, lawyer, mother, etc., that person is first and foremost a Muslim. Every area of their life is related to their religion, and God is there, in such a way of course as each person interprets their reality of God. This reminded me of the teachings of bhakti yoga and the Bhagavad Gita where we are told to try to see God in everything and everyone. The writer went on to say that for a practising Muslim, Islam is a "complete Life Paradigm".

The words 'life paradigm' really got me thinking, and I investigated that. One short definition is that a paradigm is a "total conceptual system in which a person is immersed". I started thinking, "What am I immersed in?" - the answer was "Yoga". Yoga is a conceptual system, and I am immersed in it. Yoga is a paradigm too. It can enter every aspect of our life, our relationships, our work - karma yoga is the heart of it. It can be there all the time - the thinking patterns, the wholeness of body and mind, the relationships, the loving -there is a yogic relevance in all areas of our life. For a lot of us yoga becomes our life paradigm.

Of course, people in other paradigms can remain in them while using parts of yoga with great benefit, and this is a good quality of yoga. Parts of it can help devout Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc., or even atheists while they remain true to their own belief system. In addition, though, it offers a complete life paradigm for other people who have become disillusioned by the one within which they grew up.

What is a paradigm?

Each of us has a life paradigm, but also many of us are immersed in other lesser paradigms which we may call 'auxiliary paradigms'. Let's look at both of these.

Life paradigm

Life paradigm is a person's conception of what life, ourselves, other people, the world, etc., are all about. If we think of the different viewpoints people have of just these four, we realize that there are people in other paradigms who look at these very differently, so their responses in life are different.

The paradigm is all-encompassing; it takes in all aspects of the person's life.

It is based on the person's individual belief system, which we will discuss later.

It is internally coherent and seems to supply all the answers. Many people live within a paradigm all their lives; it gives their lives meaning, and answers the simple limited kinds of everyday questions they ask. Of course, people who start thinking 'out of the square' or in a 'lateral' way often find that their paradigm has holes where the answers should be. This becomes a serious crisis in their lives and motivates them to search elsewhere. Many people are coming to yoga for just this reason.

To the person who is still identifying with his or her paradigm, it is REALITY. The majority of people who are really immersed in their life paradigm are totally unaware that they are. They are often also unaware that other people out there have completely different paradigms, completely different thinking patterns, different behavioural patterns, decision-making patterns, emotional responses, and so many of those qualities that make us different from each other.

When we start moving around the world, we start to live in other paradigm systems, and this changes us in a number of ways. Firstly, it is uncomfortable - it is called 'cultural shock'. We are much more comfortable staying in our old system and mixing with people in the same system who continually reinforce our beliefs and convictions. Secondly, it dawns on us (if we let it) that other people are working within those different systems, and feel just as comfortable in them. At first we may think that they are just stupid for thinking, believing and behaving as they do, but if we can open up to their 'reality', we may start to see that their point of view is quite valid too. There is an old saying: "Travel broadens the mind"; it is easy to see why. Each one of us has a life paradigm, but in addition some of us may be immersed in an auxiliary paradigm.

Auxiliary paradigms

An example is medical science, and I have been immersed in that for most of my life. When you are in the middle of that, you look to it to answer all of the questions you are asking about that particular area. In my days as a general practitioner in the early 1970s, I remember a time when I had diagnosed a man's illness and was asking myself, "What medicine can I prescribe for this illness?" As I had by then experienced the yogic way of thinking, I suddenly realized that I was asking a typically medical question of that era, but it was the wrong question. I should have been asking, "How can I best help this person?" The first question was a typical one of the medical paradigm of those days; the second one was the question of a person who is starting to broaden their horizons beyond the bounds of that paradigm.

Western science in general is also an auxiliary paradigm, and this is where we really start this discussion. In 1962 Thomas Kuhn, an American science historian, wrote an important book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He claimed that scientific thought and research are defined by 'paradigms', or conceptual world views that consist of:

  • Formal theories
  • Classic experiments
  • Trusted methods

Kuhn pointed out that scientists accept the prevailing paradigm; they are all in it together and reinforce each other's point of view. Indeed, any of them who starts to work outside the paradigm is rejected by the others and doesn't get funding for research, or tenure at a teaching institution. The joke is that the scientists working within their paradigm don't even know they are in it; they just take it for granted that they are all going in the correct direction. The other joke, of course, is that WE don't know that we are on OUR life paradigm either, because we are so deeply immersed in it - does the fish have any concept of the sea? As well as that, the people around us all reinforce our belief systems that sustain the paradigm.

Kuhn wrote that, working within the 'science paradigm' scientists try to extend its scope by refining the theories, explaining any puzzling results, and establishing better measures of the phenomena with which they are working. Don't we do this in our lives too?

He disagreed with the belief that scientific progress is a gradual accumulation of knowledge based on rationally chosen theories and experiments. He argued that the paradigm dictates and limits:

  1. The types of questions scientists ask
  2. The kinds of experiments they perform
  3. The problems they consider important.

If we think about it, we will realize that we are also limited by our life paradigm in the same ways. The paradigm dictates the directions of our endeavours in our life, the types of questions we ask about life (and therefore the types of answers we get) and the things we consider important. It also determines the decisions we make about all sorts of aspects of our lives.

Paradigm shift

Kuhn went on to claim that eventually the scientists' efforts may generate theoretical problems that can't be solved, or experimental anomalies that expose the paradigm's inadequacies or even contradict it altogether. These difficulties create a crisis that can only be resolved by replacing the old paradigm with a new one. He called this the 'paradigm shift'. Typical examples of these are:

  1. In astronomy, the belief that the Earth is the centre of the universe and that all the 'heavenly bodies' revolve around it was replaced by the realization of Copernicus almost 500 years ago that the Earth actually revolves around the sun, forming part of the solar system, which is a discrete part of the universe.
  2. At the beginning of the last century another revolution occurred, this time in physics, as the old system of Isaac Newton was revolutionized by quantum physics and the general theory of relativity.

Kuhn said the paradigm shift alters the fundamental concepts of science. The whole conceptual system is renewed, and so is the thinking behind the research. He said that the new paradigm demands new research techniques, new standards of scientific evidence, and new systems of theory and experiment that are very different from those of the old paradigm.

Maybe it's not just science where this process has to occur. Maybe some of the main forms of 'personal paradigm' in the world today are heading for the same fate. Certainly many of us have gone through just this - we have become aware of the serious faults in our own personal, often materialistic, paradigm. The crisis this creates in our lives is the typical 'dark night of the soul', and many people don't survive it. Others experience the grace of coming into contact with a spiritual master just when things are darkest - the guru answers the prayer. It is said that "when the disciple is ready the guru appears" - that 'readiness' is often the death throes of the person's old paradigm.

Maybe we can also see the serious fault-lines that are forming in some dominant world paradigms, which will necessitate them being replaced by new ones in the not too distant future.

How do we each develop our personal paradigm?

The personal paradigm comes from many influences on us, which we have received at both conscious and unconscious levels, and this is why it is so powerful. Our paradigm is also made up of layers at both of these levels, such as the following.

Conscious influences

These are the influences that come into us through the ordinary sensory channels such as sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. We are usually conscious of them, but some can be subliminal such as background sounds, meaningful fleeting glances from people, etc. I have included them in this section to differentiate them from the impressions we take in through our psychic channels. The conscious influences come from different levels of the environment in which we live, as follows.

  1. Personal experiences: The earliest personal experiences may well go back to previous lives, so that when we are born into this life, we have a stock of vast numbers of experiences from a long way back - known as 'karma' in yoga - as well as those from our time in the womb. Then of course we have the experiences of this life, which are the only ones that orthodox psychology and psychiatry deal with.
  2. Family influences: These are of fundamental importance to our development because they occur at such a young and impressionable age. The actions, attitudes and other treatment by members of our family, especially by their example, are very powerful in helping to form our life paradigm. For instance, the person who has grown up in a loving intimate family will certainly have a different style of paradigm from the one who has experienced a childhood in a destructive, traumatic family.
  3. Social groups: These are influences by people who are close to us but are outside the family, such as the people at school and other peer groups. Here also the strongest influences in forming our paradigm are the behaviour, attitudes and other examples of these people.
  4. 'Tribal' group: These are larger than the family and peers, but can also have a powerful influence on our belief systems and our sense of who we are. Depending on when and where we grew up these might be clans, such as in Scotland, or states, or subdivisions of a country such as Kurds and Basques.
  5. Nation group: The nation in which we grow up also has a significant influence in the formation of our personal paradigm, and it is one reason why we should travel to other countries to broaden it. There are even obvious differences in such similar countries as Australia, Britain and the United States, but there are very different national paradigms in many others. The leaders of most countries also make sure that the emotions of patriotism are added to their subjects' paradigm, maybe so they can march them off to war when required.
  6. Cultural groups: These may be larger groups, such as the 21st century Western or the Islamic groups, whose attitudes and belief systems spread around the world. They may also be smaller ones which are also international, such as the medical profession, the military, Scouts, and of course yogic. All of these put their stamp on the development of the paradigm of each person who is involved with them.
  7. Cross-cultural: These are mainly divided into the 'industrialized world', and the hunter-gatherer societies. Needless to say there are vast differences between the life paradigms of the people who grow up in each of these. It is actually very difficult for the two groups to understand each other at all, and this is the main part of the problem of the relationship between the indigenous populations of countries, such as Australian Aborigines and Native Americans, and the industrialized populations who settled the areas more recently.
  8. Human: Obviously humans in general view themselves, their world and the deeper aspects of life meaning differently from the animals, but even here there are some animals with which we can develop a strong rapport, while with others we don't have the same communication.

Unconscious influences

These are conveyed to us in psychic ways. It is obvious to anyone who is open to experience, and it has been proved scientifically, that we are able to receive the thoughts of other people - so called 'mental telepathy'. In the same way we are aware, at some level of our being, of predominant thought patterns of whole sections of the community, and through our life they influence the development of our paradigms.

In the 'family unconscious', psychic communication between individuals is at its peak. Indeed many people spend their whole lives acting out the deep urges of another member of the family, and the whole exchange of information goes on at a psychic level. There are also blended thought forms that constitute the 'social unconscious', the 'tribal unconscious', the 'national unconscious', the 'cultural unconscious', the 'cross-cultural unconscious' and the 'human unconscious', which is said by some to be the 'collective unconscious' of Jung.

Of course, because psychic influences are not limited by distance, they can still affect a person who has left the place of their origin. This is especially the case for people who are in harmony with those thought patterns, and it makes it difficult, though not impossible, to change our paradigm even by leaving the family, community, country, etc. Yoga is one way we can do it for the better, especially in the psychic shelter of an ashram.

Remember that all our past impressions at all of these levels remain deep in the consciousness of each of us all of the time. We have absorbed all these influences, conscious and unconscious, and made them our own. At this point in our lives most of us are totally unaware of this, we don't even know it - we "ARE IT". This makes it very difficult to change because it is our identity. We can only start to change things that we can view objectively. This stuff is all subjective for the vast majority of people, so unless we can start to develop the witness or observer state within ourselves, we will stay in the same paradigm until we die, and we will never even know we have been stuck in it.

Where do we start?

Right at the centre of the life paradigm of each one of us is our personal belief system. This is the group of fundamental beliefs each of us holds, and it completely rules our lives. We need to become very clear about these, and see what yoga can do to help us to develop more fulfilling beliefs. What are these fundamental beliefs and how do they influence us so strongly?

(Part 2 of this article here)