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Embracing Diversity

03 August 2018 - By Paul Sills

Part 3 – Why are we different?

Humans are diverse and different; a collection of individuals inhabiting the planet and all competing for our share of what’s available.

The previous article in this series (LawTalk 916, April 2018, page 29) posited that this statement is true, and also not true. To understand that paradox it is necessary to examine diversity on two different levels: our experience of being part of a complete whole, and diversity as part of the human condition. The previous article discussed the unity aspect. This article deals with diversity as part of the human condition.

Why do we judge others, belong to groups and identify with one form of religious expression but not others? Why do we express ourselves so differently and view those who are not “the same” with suspicion or worse? Where does our diversity of expression come from?

The answer lies in our conditioning.

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.”
— William James

“We are what we repeatedly do.”
— Aristotle

A habit is an idea that is fixed in our subconscious mind and causes us to act without any conscious thought. A paradigm is a collection of habits. Our paradigms cause our habitual behaviour. As much as 95% of our reaction to events in life is habitual – unconscious, repetitive, conditioned reactions to external stimuli (including people).

An illustration of a large group of people

Most of our conditioning occurs between five months in utero and the age of six, when our conscious minds are not developed and we have no independent ability to decide what we wish to accept as being true for ourselves. Rather, our environment and the conditioning of those around us are the key influences on how our identities form. Numerous examples exist: how we vote, our religious beliefs, the tribes we belong to – all follow clear lines of inter-generational and tribal conditioning and all mould us.

Taking a step back, there are two parts to our mind: the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind is connected to the world around us through our senses. We grow up being taught to live through our senses to gather information. In these formative years everything we see, taste, touch, smell and hear is absorbed directly into our subconscious mind. We inherit the habits and paradigms of our environment and the people closest to us. The vast majority of us carry this same conditioning through our entire lives. Everything we experience through our senses tends to reinforce our conditioning.

Our subconscious mind will express whatever is impressed upon it. It is not deductive and accepts as true for us anything that we are able to impress upon it from our conscious mind and our thinking. The expression of our subconscious mind then becomes our actions and behaviours – the results of our life.

Our subconscious mind is the engine that generates what we feel and how we act. Our conditioning is a key part of our ego/identity – it creates the person that we think we are and is the place where our judgements come from.

Without intervention our identity becomes a closed loop and we will unconsciously react the same way to similar external stimuli over and over for the duration of our life. We have known this for thousands of years, but the West has been slow to understand its importance.

“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character; So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love Born out of concern for all beings… As the shadow follows the body, As we think, so we become.”

— Buddha, Dhammapada

Indian philosopher & religious leader (563-483 BC)

How we are educated and taught to think in the West plays a large part in our conditioning and ultimately our judgement of others. Our focus is on rational thinking which has its origins in Greek philosophy and in particular the work of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Greek philosophy introduced us to critical analysis and deductive reasoning (the process of applying logical principles to given premises or general facts to derive a specific fact).

This way of thinking has had a deforming effect on Western culture and education and has encouraged the West to be an individualist versus collectivist society. This strong sense of the individual has become a key part of our conditioning and means that we are trained from a young age to see ourselves as separate and different. Our judgements come from this conditioned space. It is our individual identity, our ego, that dictates how we see the world if we let it. And we will unconsciously “let it” unless we consciously intervene in our conditioned thinking processes. Cognitive behavioural therapy is based on this interplay between the conscious and subconscious mind (essentially how we think, feel and act).

So, it is our predominant thoughts, feelings and emotions that form our identity, our culture and our judgements. It is the way we look at others and situations that dictate what we see around us and what happens to us. Our lives become self-fulfilling because of the conditioned way that we think and feel on a daily basis.

It is a paradox of the human condition that all the cultural associations we identify with and think define us are actually the cause of the expression of diversity and the reason we are so quick to judge those who we perceive as different to us. Instead of judgement we should simply be seeking to observe and understand what is going on. When we judge we do not learn anything new, and we make it more difficult to move toward mutually acceptable resolutions to conflicts.


Paul Sills paul.sills@paulsills.co.nz is an Auckland barrister specialising in commercial and civil litigation. He is also an experienced mediator. This is the third in a series of articles on embracing diversity. Read Part One, Part TwoPart Four, Part Five and Part Six.

Last updated on the 3rd August 2018