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Hey Bro! Don't Box Me In


Poster advertising a public talk I refer to in the blog

My intended brief detour to discuss thinking outside the box in the midst of a series of posts on the role of gratitude, compassion and pride has been extended. Largely due to the inspiration I got from the comment my good friend Jordan posted on last week’s blog. Jordan maintains a treasure trove of videos from Buddhist talks given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, that are well worth checking out if you are interested in Tibetan Buddhism.


In my previous post I focused on the intra-personal aspects of how our brains filter information and constrain our thinking in order to be efficient. The boxes define what information is relative to the task at hand and thus what possibilities are acceptable. Being able to think outside our boxes can lead to creative, unexpected, and unconventional outcomes.


Thinking outside the box sounds great and is great, yet it often leads to unexpected complications because everyone is operating with their own personal thought-box, and all of our thought-boxes are influenced by the cultural norms we live in (our cultural-boxes), and when one of us steps outside our box we are likely to bump into the side, or top, or bottom of someone else’s box. I’m imagining this matrix of boxes as holding eggs, and we all have a personal mission of not cracking our egg, anyone messing with our box threatens the fragility of our egg.

These cultural boxes work much the same way at the societal level as our thought boxes work at the personal level. Cultural norms we store in memory signal what information is likely to be relevant and what possibilities are acceptable. These boxes have a huge impact on our decision-making. This is where we run into limits on what jobs are acceptable, what type of home is acceptable, what type of romantic partner is acceptable, and so on.


Just last night I attended a public meeting at the town library titled, “Compassion, Fear, and Safety in Downtown Brattleboro” organized by the loose knit organization, Compassionate Brattleboro. As the title suggests, the talk focused on how people are feeling about the level of panhandling, drug use, and loitering that is occurring in our little town of twelve thousand souls. If I hadn’t activated any of your cultural-boxes yet, that last sentence almost certainly did! The gist of the meeting was related to how “more compassion” might be applied to alleviating tension amongst various stakeholders in the town, primarily the community members living on the edge, business owners and people who live, work, and shop downtown. The panel of speakers included a long-standing business owner who is a big patron of civic activities, a pastor of a downtown church that proudly flies the rainbow flag, the chairperson of the select board (town council in Vermont lingo) who is a major advocate for folks in need, and the captain of the police department.


I really can’t think of a much better circumstance to draw out the intersection between our personal and cultural boxes. I was thrilled to get a shock out of both of mine when the captain of the police department shared one aspect of his experience and perspective. Using the example of the average person seeing a person using drugs in public and then calling the police; he stated, that while he understands why this happens, deep down he continually returns to the question, “why call the police?” He went on to describe the hypothetical scenario that the police arrive, maybe arrest the person, and at best the clear up the scene for at least a few hours. He then asked us the question, “what good has been done in the scenario and at what cost?” He exclaimed that he wonders why people don’t call an ambulance, the local psychiatric facility, or one of the town’s safety net organizations. He ended his sharing by declaring that calling the police to address social-needs issues rather than criminal issues is a post World War II phenomenon.


There are probably less than a handful of decisions we make in our lives that are not dominated by the intersection of our personal and cultural boxes. The suggestions I offered in the last post for either percolating or priming creative thinking apply to both types of boxes. What may not to occur to us so quickly with the cultural boxes is to apply the source and function of social boxes to our understanding of how they influence us. Like personal boxes, cultural boxes serve as signals to shape social behavior in an efficient manner, so we don’t all have to start from zero every time we try to decide how to act. Reflecting on how a particular norm serves certain individuals may provide a gateway to creative alternatives. If we understand what needs are being met by a norm, then perhaps we can think of how to meet it differently, in a way that doesn’t impinge on our own or other’s needs. If we learn about the shared narratives (memories) that are selecting relevant information and excluding (ir)relevant information then perhaps we can deepen our understanding of history, realize that these narratives are not always shared by everyone, and begin to expand what facts, lessons, and values are being applied to constrain our way of seeing things.


In this week’s meditation I provide guidance and opportunity to reflect on the cultural boxes that may be hampering your creative problem solving.

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