Chris Maser

Who are we culturally—now, today? This is a difficult but necessary question for people to deal with because a vision is the palpable nexus between a fading memory of the past and the anticipation of an uncertain future. The people of a community must therefore decide, based on how they define their present cultural identity, what kind of vision to create. A people's self-held concept (individual, cultural, and universal) is critical to their cultural future because their personal and cultural self-image will determine what their community will become socially, which in turn will determine what their children will become socially.

The question of who we are culturally may be more important today than in the recent past because there are times in history when two eras run parallel to each other, when one is dying while the other is struggling with its infancy. This can be a deeply disturbing, confusing, and divisive time as different worldviews, cultural patterns and assumptions, and predominant means of livelihood compete with one another in an effort to give meaning and direction to life.

Such a time of raw chaos and naked transition can be terribly frightening and thus lead people to retreat into the simplistic solutions often associated with fundamentalism. Fundamentalism (which can ensnare both the political right and left or the spiritual and secular) is characterized by a rigid, impervious belief system, which relentlessly widens the polarity between the safe "us" and the dangerous "them." Because it is founded in fear (which is always divisive) and becomes the embodiment of fear, which feeds on itself, fundamentalism is not only incapable of tolerating diverse views and backgrounds but also far less capable of creatively asking new questions and discovering new answers within a context of dynamic complexity.

Fundamentalism, which is so prevalent in today's political discourse, is simply not up to the challenge of our times. Instead, the next stage of cultural evolution must focus inward, into each person's consciousness, because this is the only realm out of which can grow creative, self-organizing innovations that offer sustainable ways of living.

Cultural evolution, like all evolution, thrives in a context rich in diversity and complexity, wherein myriad opportunities for interaction exist. Self-organizing innovations can emerge out of such a setting as people search for ways to live consciously and sustainably in every sense of the word. These innovations draw us out of the chaotic soup into further experimentation with conscious living.

The most powerful innovations are those that respond to people's basic requirements for survival and to their deepest yearnings for such things as connection, meaning, and transcendence, all of which add up to personal wholeness. When these values resonate among large numbers of people (a critical mass), society shifts, but people must first be aware of them amid the flotsam and jetsam of change in which the decay of the dying era seems to overwhelm the formative one, at least momentarily.

Of course, there initially is a multitude that, preferring the devil they know to the devil they don't, steadfastly swear allegiance to the passing era by clinging tenaciously to old views and old ways of doing things. But there is also an expanding group of younger people who find the present ripe with possibilities. And it is here, in the present, that small choices and actions can have major, albeit unpredictable, effects in determining what comes next and how it manifests.¹

And somewhere among the millions of choices and thousands of experiments with conscious living is the possibility they will coalesce into a new society founded on the precept of true community, while endowing life with real meaning. For such a society to be viable, however, it would have to be anchored on the bedrock value of social-environmental sustainability in all its myriad aspects.

Thomas Jefferson gave good counsel on values: "In matters of principle, stand like a rock. In matters of taste, swim with the current." To identify those principles and/or values on which we stand firm, we can ask ourselves:  What are the fundamental principles that I believe in to the point of no compromise? What values are central to my being?


The Ch'an masters, who carried Zen to Japan, brought Confucian ethics with them. In discussing these fundamental values as a guide to personal behavior, Confucius said, "If a man will carefully cultivate these in his conduct, he may still err a little, but he won't be far from the standard of truth."² When we, as individuals, clearly understand what our highest personal values are and can explicitly articulate them, then—and only them—can we live in their presence. Let's consider three categories of value:  universal, cultural, and individual.³

Universal Values

Universal (or archetypal) values reveal to us the human condition and inform us of our place therein. Through universal values, we connect our individual experiences with the rest of humanity (the collective unconscious) and the cosmos. Here, the barriers of time and place, of language and culture, disappear in the ever-changing dance of life. Universal values must be experienced; they cannot be comprehended. Can you, for example, know a sunset? Fathom a drop of water? Translate a smile? Define love?

Universal values are the eternal truths brought to different cultures at various times throughout history. "Even as the hands of a clock are powered from the center, which remains ever still, so the universal values remain ever at the center of human life, no matter where the hands of time are pointing—past, present, or future."³ These are the truths of the human condition toward which people aspire (such as joy, unity, love, and peace); of these the sages have spoken in many tongues.

Cultural Values

Cultural (or ethnic) values are those of the day, and are socially agreed upon. They are established to create and maintain social order in a particular time and place, and can be highly volatile. Cultural values concern ethics and human notions of right and wrong, good or evil, in terms of customs and manners.

In culture, we see reflected the ideas and behaviors that a society rewards or punishes according to their perceived alignment to its values. Hence, cultural values are a "mixed bag" for an individual, especially in a highly complex society, like that of the United States, which has lost its sense of family, community, and mythology, where there is much that may resonate with an individual and much that may not.

Every culture is a person in a sense, and like people, there is the potential for creative interaction and/or conflict when cultures meet. Although we are all too familiar with cultural conflicts and the destruction they have wrought, it is well to remember that a meeting of cultures also triggers tremendous explosions of creativity in such things as language, ethics, education, law, philosophy, and government.

Individual Values

Individual (or personal) values are constituted by the private meanings we bestow on those concepts and experiences that are important to us personally, such as marriage vows or spiritual teachings. These meanings are in large part a result of how we are raised by our families of origin and what of our parents' values we take with us in the form of personal temperament. These meanings may change, however, depending on our experiences in life and how much we are willing to grow psychologically and spiritually as a result of our experiences. As such, individual values are reflected in such things as personal goals, humor, relationships, and commitments.

Thus, how well a people's core values are encompassed in a vision depends first on how well the people understand themselves individually and as a culture, which means how well they understand their core values, and second on how well that understanding is reflected on paper, where there can be no question about what has been stated and how. By way of example, let's consider the First Canadians.


The First Canadians have departed from their old culture because they have, against their will, been forced to adopt European-Canadian ways, which means they have given up or lost ancestral ways. Yet they have not, by choice, totally adopted white culture and want to retain some degree of their ancestral culture. Thus, the three questions they must ask and answer are: (1) Which of our ancestral ways still have sufficient cultural value for us to keep them? (2) Which of the white ways are we willing to adopt? and (3) How do we put the chosen elements together in such a way that we can today define who we are culturally?

In 1993, I was asked to review an ecological brief for a First Nation in western British Columbia, Canada, whose reservation is located between the sea and land immediately downslope from that which a timber company wanted to cut. The problem lay in the fact that the timber company could only reach its trees by obtaining an easement through the reservation, which gave the First Nation an active voice in determining how the upper-slope forest would be logged, the results of which would affect their reservation for many, many years.

By virtue of the required easement, the First Nation was in a strong position to exert control over company behavior as it logged the upper-slope forest. Had the company not been required to pass through the reservation, it could easily have become the uncontrollable cancer that would have destroyed the cultural values of the First Nation for many generations.

Before meeting with the timber company, the First Nation's chief asked for some counsel. My reply was as follows:

Before I discuss the ecological brief I've been asked to review, there are three points that must be taken into account if what I say is to have any value to the First Nation. What I'm about to say may be difficult to hear, but I say it with the utmost respect.

Point 1:  Who are you, the First Nation, in a cultural sense? You are not your old culture because you have—against your will—been forced to adopt some white ways, which means you have given up or lost ancestral ways. You are not—by choice—white, so you may wish to retain some of your ancestral ways. The questions you must ask and answer are:  What of our ancestral ways still have sufficient value that we want to keep them? What of the white ways are we willing to adopt? How do we put the chosen elements together in such a way that we can today define who we are as a culture?

Point 2:  What do you want your children to have as a legacy from your decisions and your negotiations with the timber company? Whatever you decide is what you are committing your children, their children, and their children's children to pay as the social-environmental costs of your decisions unto the seventh generation and beyond. This, of course, is solely your choice, and that is as it should be. I make no judgments. But whatever you choose will partly answer Point 3.

Point 3:  What do you want your reservation to look like and act like during and after logging by the timber company? How you define yourselves culturally, what choices you make for your children, and the conscious decisions you make about the condition of your land will determine what you end up with. In all of these things, the choice is yours. The consequences belong to both you and your children.


Who are you today?

We each change personally as we grow in years and experience. So do our respective communities. Each community that wishes to create a vision for a sustainable future must therefore ask of itself:  Who are we today in a cultural sense? Then, based the answer, each community must ask:  Who do we want to be or to become?

These are important questions and must be clearly answered on paper for all to see, because how they are answered will determine the nonnegotiable constraints that set the overall direction of a community's vision and thus the legacy inherited by its children. To answer these questions one must honestly evaluate one's own set of values and then determine to live by their highest potential.


  1. The preceding discussion is based on the excellent ideas presented by Sarah van Gelder. 1997. Out of Chaos:  Finding Possibility in Complexity. YES! A Journal of Positive Futures, Winter:27.

  2. (1). D.T. Suzuki. 1959. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. and (2) Lin Yutang. 1938. Wisdom of Confucius. Random House, New York, NY.

  3. The discussion of values and aspects of vision is based on: nbsp; Laurence G. Boldt. 1993. Zen and the Art of Making a Living. Penguin/Arkana, New York, NY.

©chris maser 2008. All rights reserved.

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