Sometimes I get a little wacky in my psychotherapy office. Occasionally, I ask patients
to imagine a big garlic pickle on my couch. “What do you want help with?” I ask the pickle.
“Well, doc,” it says, “everyone tells me I smell and taste like garlic all the time, and it’s just getting unbearable!”
So I ask the pickle, “Uh, well, do you suppose your problem has anything to do with the fact that
you are always floating in a garlic-flavored brine?” We are all constantly soaking in some sort of
brine: the brine of our culture. Our attempts to deal with the great questions of being human—What is
happiness? What is love, and why is it often so difficult? What is my true purpose? Am I
succeeding in life?—are so confusing because our lives are immersed in such a confused culture.
Here’s a simple analogy: I live in the Toledo, Ohio, area where, in the summer of 2014, algae
blooms contaminated Lake Erie with a toxin called microcystin that can cause liver failure. One
possible response to the problem would have been to treat each affected individual for liver damage,
but that obviously wouldn’t make much sense. Instead, more than half a million people drank
bottled water for several days, and the community began to focus more attention on the runoff
problem and climate change that create the toxic algae blooms.
But we are not so adept at detecting threats from cultural pollution to our emotional and
spiritual health. Not recognizing that so much of what we’re contending with is in the cultural water
we’re consuming daily, we struggle in isolation. We’re constantly being poisoned and believe it’s
our own fault. Even as I spend a portion of my days writing about matters of the spirit, a culturally conditioned
voice in me constantly critiques the effort; that voice wants me to get back to doing something
more successful, productive, and remunerative. He believes that constant busyness is a requirement of
responsible living, and that daily reflection and meditation constitute dereliction of duty. He feels
guilty when I spend time on Skype with my daughter who is overseas during that sacrosanct
time called “the work day.” He would be content if I’d find our teenager’s argument that “everyone
else is doing it” a compelling reason to grant permission for something my parental instincts
have red-flagged. He wants me to ponder and get worked up about deep questions like whether or
not I need a marble countertop in the kitchen. His yammering gives voice to both my own
dysfunction and the culture’s deep confusion. When he seems silent, it’s usually not that he
has given me reprieve; rather, I have become so habituated to his presence that I have trouble
distinguishing the cucumber of my authentic self from the brine of culture. How do we get out of the
pickle jar of cultural confusion?
[This is the beginning of a five-page article I wrote for the current issue of Spirituality & Health. The full article discusses twelve cultural dis-eases in which we’re all pickling and how familiarity with ancient wisdom can help us get a fresh perspective on our culture. The editors of S & H chose “How to Soak in Divine Brine” as the title of the article because in an early draft I mentioned that I think of daily meditation time as an opportunity to soak in divine brine. In my next post, I’ll share about a few of the dis-eases of our culture and how cultivating familiarity with wisdom figures can help us pickle in something else.]