Little Boxes

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.

Malvina Reynolds wrote this song in 1962 as her car passed through a California town, Daly City. The song became an anthem about the materialistic and conformist culture preceding the social revolutions of the late 1960’s.

But the song also reflects a larger reality. We are ALL in little boxes, within bigger boxes, within bigger boxes, like Russian nesting dolls.

These boxes literally “box us in” from seeing what’s really out there. Philosophers call them paradigms; psychologists call them perceptual sets. These organize experience for us and tell us what to notice or expect.

For example, let’s pretend that we are looking at a Gothic cathedral.

The architect says, “Take a look at those flying buttresses! They carry the thrust of the weight.”

The historian says, “There’s a copy of the original Magna Carta inside.”

The devotee says, “What wonderful vibrations! I think I’ll meditate.”

It is usual for us not to notice the details outside our boxes. If we glimpse them at all, it will be through the filters of our boxes. We don’t see what’s out there. We see the box.

This is why our “evaluations” of a movie, a class, or a book may be different from someone else’s.


“What a great movie! All those special effects!”

“What a boring movie—all action and no character development!”

“What a disgusting movie—all that violence and sexism!”

These could all be “evaluations” of the same movie.

This is why communication fails so often. The boxes are talking to one another.

Now . . . the interesting part comes when the box in which a whole culture sits begins to break up and shift. Philosophers, following Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, call this phenomenon a paradigm shift. Some people believe such a shift is going on now. Alvin Toffler calls these two paradigms the Second and the Third Wave. (The First Wave was the move from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural settlements.)

Paradigms have, of course, shifted many times before. Example:

But, of course, no new paradigm ever repeats an older one exactly. The more accurate model of shifts is a spiral: there’s a repetition of old views, but on a higher level. Or, as Hegel says, a thesis is opposed by an antithesis which eventually yields a synthesis.

In the language of ancient India, we are now passing into a new age, characterized by electricity and energy and the dissolution of time and space: Dwapara Yuga. (For a book on this theory, see The Yugas, by Joseph Selbie and David Steinmetz.) But the old ideas still remain, and so we are in a shaky box, an uncomfortable place to inhabit, like sitting on a couch in an earthquake.

We experience “cognitive dissonance,” an uncomfortable feeling when new facts don’t fit our old cherished beliefs and theories.

There are three ways to handle cognitive dissonance: (1) Ignore it—pretend there is no dissonance–usually uncomfortable for most people; (2) Ignore the new facts—pretend that the new facts don’t exist or are irrelevant, as mainstream psychologists and scientists do with the evidence for E.S.P.; (3) Accept the new idea—acknowledge that there are so many dissonant facts that a new paradigm is in order.

As facts continue to accumulate and supporters of the old paradigm die off, the new paradigm then takes hold. Max Planck said, “Science advances one funeral at a time.” The “funerals” are necessary because people become invested in their old boxes, some of which have taken them a lifetime to construct. They’ve invested their identities and perhaps their careers in these boxes; hence they block the new ideas in any way they can. They refuse to publish the papers or hire the thinkers. One scientist famously said, “This is the sort of idea I wouldn’t believe in even if it were true.” No evidence would convince him.

And so mainstream psychology is rejecting the new paradigm of transpersonal studies: examinations of consciousness such as mystical states, near-death experiences, past-life research, extra-sensory perception, and out-of-body experiences. The mainstream attitude is, “We don’t talk about these experiences; we agree not to notice them.” The one exception may be the study of brain waves, linked to states of consciousness—not to prove the reality of these states but to assert that they are entirely physical, a stance called reductionism. (The same thing happened in the 1960’s, when behaviorism ruled psychology and traditional academic psychologists agreed not to notice what was in “the black box”: the mind. These operations were invisible and hence irrelevant.)

Exercises for Meditation and Journaling

  1. When you were young, did you ever have what Jung would call a “numinous” experience—some experience beyond your current material self or knowledge? Did adults ignore it (cognitive dissonance) or frame it as fantasy (little box of materialism)? Did you forget the experience until you later had a box (transpersonal studies) to put it in?

Here are a few of mine. 1) When I was a toddler visiting Baron Lake in Michigan, I saw my father in a rowboat far out on the lake. I ran right off the edge of the pier toward him, expecting to float through the air, but instead dropped like a stone. I was shocked: why couldn’t I float? As my little body tumbled in the water, the essence that was “I” floated beside it, watching. A voice came out of a bright light: “It is not your time yet. You have too much to accomplish in this life.” Then my father pulled me from the water. I forgot this experience until I had the NDE box to put it in.

2) At about the same age, I approached my mother, who was washing dishes at the sink. “Mama, why didn’t you name me Betty like you did when we were together before?” “Because your name is Bunny,” she said calmly, placing a dish in the drainer. In this moment of cognitive dissonance, I realized that I was not supposed to talk about the times before. It was forbidden for some reason—bad or stupid. Not until I recalled my past life as Lady Betty, near Banbury Cross in Oxfordshire, did I also recall I had ridden my little rocking horse to two English songs, again and again: :”This is the way the lady rides” and “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross.”

3) Still during the toddler age. I had an experience that Walt Whitman describes as “I felt the identity of my body, and I perceived that I was in a body.” I whirled around in my front yard and exclaimed, “It’s me! It’s me! This is my body, and if I pinch it, it will hurt.” I knew that I was larger and older than the body. A few years earlier, while my beloved grandfather (Papa) was in the hospital, I was not allowed to see him. I had to stand on a sidewalk and wave toward his hospital window. I thought with disdain, They think I’m a little child! They don’t know who I am. Awhile later, I could tell the adults were hiding something from me. I regarded them somberly and asked, “Is my Papa dead?” They were stunned. They didn’t believe I knew what death was, but I did. I was about two.

  1. How many paradigm shifts have you had in your life? Did they involve spirituality or religion? Did they involve the way you viewed yourself? Did you change your Personal Myth, the internal narrative about who you were and what the story of your life meant?


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