From the time we’re infants, we are continuously pressured to obey, conform, and be pleasing to others and to authorities.
When we do this well, we may get our rewards in social approval, and if we don’t, we may suffer the consequences. The problem is that if we are merely an obedient product of our social conditioning, we disconnect ourselves from our inner wisdom, creativity, and the unique individual expression that we are born to discover and celebrate in this life.
From a cultural perspective, how can we fulfill our potential and how can our society evolve, if we never question the pervasive socially imposed narratives, especially those that are harmful or limiting? Learning and practicing the art of disobeying counterproductive social narratives, especially if they’re internalized, can open doorways to both personal and planetary healing and transformation. These are urgent issues, calling us to contribute to awakening from our current mass hypnosis.
As an example, I remember going through a tumultuous period during my college years in the early 1970s and beginning seriously to question internalized social norms. I am grateful that I did, and that there were some role models for inspiration. Contemplating the Vietnam War and its consequences led me to start defying inner taboos against questioning the morality of my nation-tribe and its leaders, and against exploring and embracing what were considered radical or un-American views in politics, economics, religion, and ethics.
One poignant example of this was that in my senior year I finally realized how I had allowed myself to become a virtual slave to the academic rewards system of grading. Since early childhood I had worked hard to achieve excellent grades, and it had served well in terms of getting parental approval and admission into a respected college. Yet I suddenly felt the painful shallowness and even the dishonesty of studying to perform well in examinations just to game the system in my favor. Where would it end?
I rebelled internally and still remember vividly the final exam for my Organizational Behavior senior seminar, sitting solemnly with all the other students who were diligently beginning to write their answers to the exam questions. Instead, I briefly wrote that I had spent my entire life chasing good grades, that I refused to do so anymore, and that the frozen pond was beckoning me to leave and go skating in the fresh air. I turned in my paper to the professor and can still see his jaw dropping as I went outside and glanced back through the classroom window as he was reading it.
I was of course called in to academic offices of wellmeaning authorities warning me that while my solid academic record assured that I would graduate, I was burning my bridges, and it would probably never be possible to go on to graduate school if I let my grades slide like this. I was adamant though, and threw myself into a self-guided exploration in the college library into a beckoning universe of revolutionary and fascinating ideas and lives: Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Wilhelm Reich, Marcuse, Henry Miller, Ram Dass, Zen texts, the Gita, and for action, performing an organ concert, serving as music director of a play, and becoming the managing editor of the Colby Echo, the college newspaper, commenting on and influencing the political and social struggles of campus life.
It was an exhilarating and liberating final semester at Colby, and led in a rather organic way to another act of disobedience, which was to literally walk away from going into the family business. As the oldest child, I had been groomed from birth to inherit and manage The Beacon Publishing Company, started by my father, which comprised a chain of 13 local newspapers in suburban Massachusetts, that he had built up from virtually nothing over the prior two decades. My dad accepted it gracefully, and my younger brother Ed and I left home in September 1975 in what for us was a spiritual pilgrimage west, toward California, where we thought we would find kindred spirits and cosmic consciousness.
Our walk ended up taking us eventually south to Alabama, and was basically an almost continuous practice of questioning and disobeying many of my acquired inner taboos and some outer ones as well, often by necessity. We had virtually nothing and were walking in faith, meditating and practicing self-inquiry, sleeping wherever we could, and deepening the “Who am I?” question to get to the roots of understanding our true nature, beyond the chatter of our mind’s continual dialog that reinforces the dualistic categories of self and other. I learned to begin to let go of inner narratives of self-protectiveness, and to be more open to the direct experience of the present moment. We found that food and shelter somehow always (perhaps somewhat miraculously) appeared, through helping others, or dumpster diving, or being jailed for vagrancy, or welcomed in by kind people, as we walked the small back-country roads of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
One lesson that stands out during this time is my decision to disobey the internalized medical edict that I would never be able to see without glasses. Though my vision was fine as a child, in sixth grade I developed a bit of a blur and was diagnosed with mild near-sightedness and fitted with glasses.
I didn’t like them but was encouraged to wear them so I could see everything sharply, and as the years went by, and I got contact lenses, the prescriptions kept getting stronger to the point that in college I had 20/200 vision in my better eye, and could barely count fingers with the other eye. Intuitively, about a month into our walk, I felt called to disobey the constant glasses-wearing mandate, and just allowed the world to be a huge blur. Ed became, during these early months, my seeing-eye dog.
It was challenging because of feeling vulnerable, but as I stuck with it over the months and years, my vision began naturally to heal and improve. Spending days walking in the fresh air, feeling exhilarated and grateful to be living my own chosen life and following a deep inner calling, meditating many hours daily, abandoning eating meat, and a few years later going vegan, spending hours studying the principles of healthy vision and doing eye exercises of many kinds, seeking out vision teachers and re-learning the habits of healthy vision, and exploring the powerful truths underlying the ancient wisdom of spiritual healing: all these and other factors poured blessings into my life and vision.
Because I was willing to disobey the medical orders I had internalized, I received benefits far beyond naturally improving eyesight. My vision gradually improved to 20/40, good enough to pass the driving test, which I’ve done for the past 40 years, but my inner vision also improved. On this deeper level, I discovered that my disability—my blur—was an outer manifestation of the fear at eleven years old of not being accepted by others, and an unconscious yearning to escape from a seemingly more threatening world. The physical glasses from the medical industry addressed only the symptom, not the underlying cause, and forced my vision into continuing deterioration. Never encouraged to look at dis-ease as a symbolic manifestation of a deeper disharmony, with a benevolent purpose—to facilitate emotional healing and bring the light of awareness to the underlying cause—I had been made powerless and dependent upon an industry that had me as a customer for life, with the attendant headaches, discomfort, inconvenience, and ongoing cost of exams and hardware.
It became clear to me that by constantly suppressing symptoms, western allopathic medicine had blinded me to the gift that the blur was trying to bring to me: to reveal and help me address the underlying emotional wounds. As I consciously cultivated a deeper understanding of myself not as a mere physical/mental machine that is born and dies, but as eternal consciousness with the inherent capacity of seeing clearly, I realized more clearly that outer manifestations always flow from inner realities. What I am (and all of us are) is the inner reality, not the outer appearance. By disobeying the materialistic medical “laws” I had been indoctrinated to live by, I became freer to obey the deeper and truer universal laws of joy, creativity, and healing.
After several years living in meditation centers in Alabama and Georgia, I relocated to San Francisco and after a few years decided to apply to graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, but was immediately rejected due to my GPA from Colby not being high enough, as I had been warned. However, with the intervening years of meditation practice and study, I was in many ways a different person, and upon being accepted into a Master’s program at San Francisco State University, I was no longer chasing good grades. Passionately inspired by the love of learning, I naturally received high grades and awards and when I then applied to U. C., Berkeley’s, Ph.D. program, I was immediately accepted, and went on to an unusual 4.0+ GPA at Berkeley with my dissertation being nominated for the Best Dissertation Award. Again, not because I was seeking good grades but rather because I felt aligned with a deeper purpose, and while taking a full course load at Berkeley, also taught a full course load at a local college.
It’s inspiring to realize how assuredly doors open when we follow what mythologist Joseph Campbell called “our bliss,” our unique calling that brings joy and fulfillment. Through disobeying lower laws and taboos, higher laws can be fulfilled. Obeying the higher law of compassion, I gladly broke the lower indoctrinated laws—based on fear as they usually are—that I must eat animalsourced foods to get needed nutrition and to fit in, or that I should drink alcohol or take drugs to relax, or that I must conform to be accepted by others.
Over the years, experimenting with the art of disobedience, I’ve been willingly arrested and jailed to show solidarity with people suffering under U.S. military domination, liberated crabs and lobsters from underwater traps, and journeyed to learn about and help make peace with the “evil empire” enemy, the former Soviet Union, through piano concerts there. That led somewhat miraculously to discovering my beloved life-partner, Madeleine, in Switzerland, through which I backpacked and was surreptitiously sleeping in forestedge sheep bunkers at night, and playing the piano at a local Waldorf school in the evenings. I met her at the school one evening at an unexpected formal-attire art gallery opening. Though I was dressed in shorts, she fortunately resonated with both my music and my free-spirited nature, and we eventually lived on the road in a “rolling tiny house” for twenty years, traveling to all fifty states, and ultimately to fifty countries as well, sharing the vegan message through about four thousand lectures to date. I am honored to have spent nearly three glorious decades now with such a loving and inspiring companion. A thread running through all the many joys and opportunities has been exploring the comfort zone edge, and challenging inner and outer taboos and customs.
It’s a delicate balance. Cultivating discriminating awareness is essential. Every action has consequences. Though there are certainly times when it may be best to follow the dictates of the medical establishment, or the prevailing political and economic laws and policies, there are clearly times when doing so prevents us from following the higher universal principles that can bring positive and creative transformation into our individual and collective lives.
From the outside, it may look like disobedience, but from the inside it feels like inner guidance. Saying no to accepted protocols may actually be saying yes to our inner wisdom’s directives, and can help us be a positive force for healing and awakening in our world. Every day we can do our best to break a few rules and to question our inner authorities, disobeying their orders that imprison us in fear and delusion. During this time of unprecedented medical, political, economic, and social demands for unquestioned obedience, as well as the brutal censorship of alternative narratives, our reasoned disobedience to ill-conceived, reductionist orders and directives may be an especially valuable gift to others and to ourselves.
Dr. Will Tuttle, visionary educator and musician, is author of the international best-seller, The World Peace Diet. A former Zen monk and recipient of the Courage of Conscience Award and Empty Cages Prize, he has created eight CD albums of uplifting original piano music and is a vegan since 1980.