There's an old 80s sitcom in America called Cheers. None of my Armenian friends seem to know it. It's set in a bar where a bunch of friends meet every episode, kind of like Central Perk from Friends. It has a very famous opening theme song, the chorus of which goes:

♫ Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. ♫
♫ And they're always glad you came. ♫
♫ You wanna be where you can see the troubles are all the same. ♫
♫ You wanna go where everybody knows your name. ♫

The heartwarming idea implied by these lyrics is that we are all seeking a place we can escape to, where everybody knows and welcomes us because they share the same struggles, ideas, and sense of identity. That's what "home" is supposed to feel like – the place of maximum comfort, support, and familiarity: the place of least surprise. We are escaping a world that generally presents us with the struggles of strangeness, alienation, and lack of understanding.

However, sometimes we need the opposite form of escape. Sometimes you want to go where nobody knows your name. Somewhere you can be anonymous. Somewhere you can just be whoever you want to be instead of the person the people who know your name expect you to be. You want to go where you can be someone different. You want an escape from the familiar, not the strange, because familiarity is a box. It might be a very nice box. It can be a box you've grown very comfortable in. But it is still limiting if it's all you've known.

When you go somewhere nobody knows you, you can try out any box you want. Maybe you just got so used to being the person everyone in your life knows you to be that you've settled there. Now it's what everybody around you expects of you, everybody who knows your name, because they're all in the same box with you. They already know how to identify you and usually won't be open to radically different ideas about it. They expect you to keep being the same as them.

♫ You wanna go where people know that people are all the same. ♫
♫ You wanna go where everybody knows your name. ♫


I had my first major disassociative experience when I was 18 and started traveling the world alone. My travels took me to many strange, exciting, and challenging cultures that allowed me to question everything I thought I knew about who I was back home in California. These types of liberating and identity-reconstructing experiences became the subject of my second book, Travel as Transformation, and a TEDx talk I delivered at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan in 2019 titled Who Are We When the World Stops Telling Us Who to Be?

Because of those experiences and the profound effects they had on my sense of identity, I saw that everyone could similarly benefit from the opportunity to explore who they are. However, not everyone has the motive, means, and opportunity to travel and intentionally expose themselves to strange new worlds or seek out new life and new civilizations.

There's good news for Armenians. You don't have to go to such extreme lengths to step out of your comfort zone and forget who you think you are. You don't have to go galavanting around the world on your own to kill your old self. You can find ways to distance yourself from the familiar and open your mind and soul right here in Armenia.

My mission is to give you that type of self-reflective experience in the most convenient way possible. I have meticulously crafted that opportunity over the last five years since I bought an old house in a remote and sparsely populated village in Gegarkhunik called Kalavan. The distance and isolation present an opportunity to come here and be someone new. You can stop acting the way you think you're supposed to because no one will be around to keep you in the same old box. Perhaps, for the first time, you can live without caring about what everyone around you thinks of you.

A retreat like this is like being a tourist in a foreign country. You know you don't have to hold yourself to the same cultural standards that all the locals are used to because you come from a different world. You are a proud alien among the people. That's the freedom I found all those years ago when I began to travel and have carried with me until now. That's what I want everyone who feels the harmful effects of their cultural restrictions in Armenia to be able to experience for themselves.

I wish to contribute to an Armenia where young people don't have to fear what others will think about them for following their passions. I want children to feel safe and uninhibited growing up here so they won't carry the trauma of past generations with them. Someone has to break the cycle for progress to happen. This place is designed for interrupted patterns and new order created. Kalavan is a place to exist without the burden of Armenian cultural expectations.

Armenian Culture's Hidden Influence and Limitations

"To maintain order and control you must isolate the intellectual, the sage, the philosopher, the savant before their ideas awaken people. This will cause a mental implosion from lack of thought-stimulating conversations and interactions with others, which will lead to their demise."
Carl Jung

Culture is the sum of unconscious thoughts and associations a population carries. It's how they identify with each other, even if they've never met and know nothing explicit about one another. All they need to know is that they belong to part of the same group identity. Each party can assume that the others will share at least a base-level understanding of what reality is and how everything works within it. It saves them an awful lot of time and the effort of thinking.

In other words, culture is the unconscious acceptance of how things are supposed to be. It lingers in every aspect of human behavior without critical analysis, or often even explicit awareness, of its influence. It is simply the only way things could ever be, which can make it so hard to notice. There is nothing to contrast it with. It is like water to a fish: so ever-present and taken for granted, it seems as though it simply does not exist.

The opposite of culture, therefore, is conscious self-discovery. Anything arrived at or discovered about oneself expresses who they really are. This dichotomy implies there has to be a fundamental self that exists before and independently of cultural influence. There is a "you" that precedes who the world has always been telling you to be.

Is it possible to think and act differently than the people around you? The people reared in the same culture and who live in the same box as you? Is it possible to be Armenian without acting "Armenian?" Conversely, can you act like an Armenian without being raised in American culture? Can you like the same foods or music simply because they appeal to you? Or must it be because you were born submersed in them and carried those habits forward?

What's the difference between an Armenian following their culture and someone just being themselves and acting in a way incidentally similar to Armenians? One is cultural; the other is volitional. One is automatic; the other comes from awareness.

The potential benefit of culture is that it can open your mind to what's possible for you to value (and, therefore, what actions you can take in pursuit of those values). It can show you new things you might never realize were desirable options.

How can you know if you'd like the music of The Beatles if you've never heard them or anything like them before? Alternatively, if you don't like the music of The Beatles, would any amount of being forced to listen to it make you suddenly start liking it? Would you like completely different music styles if you had grown up in a different part of the world? Would music that you find distasteful right now suddenly be appealing? What about something more fundamental like your morals and values? If you consider yourself a good person now, would you be an asshole instead? Would you support some of the things you currently find detestable and detest some of the things you consider virtuous?

How much of who you are is because of the influences Armenia have put in you instead of your own discovery, analysis, and attempts at greater self-expression? If you only like things because they are all you've ever been exposed to, you're being a slave to your culture. You can't know if your interests and values are expressions of who you really are because it's the only thing you've ever tried. It's extremely unlikely that the culture you were born into would just happen to align perfectly with every aspect of your fundamental self.

Maybe there are many things you would prefer to do differently than how the people in your culture do them, but you don't feel it's possible or permissible to even explore those options. Maybe you'd like to date someone unconventional but you fear ostracism for doing so. Maybe you love your dog and want him to sleep in your bed with you every night, but every Armenian around you sees that as unclean and unacceptable behavior. You never try it until you meet someone from a different culture who lets their dog sleep in their bed. Now it's an option for you. It was always your natural preference; it just took an extra-cultural influence to get you confident enough to act on it. It wasn't about what was physically possible but what was normal for you.

Obviously, it's not a foregone conclusion that once you are exposed to the possibility of a dog sleeping on a human's bed, you will want a dog to sleep on yours. There must be some other factor present that makes you want it. Your experiences do not determine your preferences. You are not a culture-imitating machine or culturebot. You have your own emotions, nature, and capacity for critical thinking and self-analysis. We can only say you become aware of more possibilities through your experiences, not that they determine your values for you.

The moment you start to think about what you believe, why you believe it, and all the other ways you could possibly think, you are acting anti-culturally. You are slowly replacing the ocean of unconsciousness with firm, conscious land to stand upon and construct new architecture of thought. You are slowly revealing yourself to a world that previously superimposed itself onto you and tried to control you.

Armenian Cultural Deprogramming

"When one bases one's identity on a life-style, isn't one confusing the artifact with its creator, the house with its occupant?"
Alexander Lowen, Narcissism: Denial of the True Self

Culture imposes a set of generalized values on each of us. It tries to tell us which priorities should be most important above all others. And it may have what seem to be very good reasons for wanting to spread its values like this. But that doesn't make those values objectively important or authentic to who you are as an individual. You cannot force yourself to genuinely care about what others wish for you to care about. And you can't live a meaningful life without knowing what's really important to you.

That's why we all stand to benefit from cultural deprogramming. It's about figuring out who you are and what's most important to you without considering what the world around you happens to think. It's about becoming brave enough to tell the rest of the world that you disagree with their hierarchy of values once you know this to be true.

From cultural deprogramming, you may realize that you think that many of the things your world insists are good are actually quite bad. The inverse can also happen. You may realize that you have almost nothing fundamental in common with the people you've lived with and built your whole identity around. It can be alienating and difficult for some people to bear on their own.

Deprogramming is one of the simplest things in the world. It's so simple, in fact, that almost everyone will overlook how important and profound it is. To deprogram yourself from inherited ideas, you must consciously remove yourself from their source. You have to do this to let go of everything false and allow yourself to learn the truth, whatever it may end up being. You come here to willingly commit yourself to experience a prolonged state of existence that frees you from your phony cultural obligations.

A retreat of this kind is not about going on vacation in an exotic location or taking a break from your daily monotonous responsibilities. It is entirely about the mindset you bring into it and the logistical opportunities brought about by physically distancing yourself from the source of the problem.

Think of deprogramming as quarantining yourself from an infection you are constantly re-exposed to. You are powerless against it until you've cured yourself, and that's considerably more difficult to do while you are chronically under assault by it. Most people stand no hope of eradicating the viral agent unless they spend enough time in a sterile environment, which means one where they do not have to worry about being exposed to it for some time. Then they can begin to strengthen and heal. Then they can even innoculate themselves so that when they are exposed to it again, their immune system will be strong enough to keep it out. Or, at least, the ensuing infection won't be as bad as before.

Many groups have labeled this process in many ways over the generations. Call it awakening or enlightenment if you like. Call it unplugging from the matrix or seeing through the delusion of māyā. Each of these terms has its own emphasis and special meaning for the people who employ it. I try not to mince words or obfuscate communication more than necessary, so I will call it deprogramming from culture's influence. It is the most literal, direct, and explicit description I can think of.

My home in Kalavan is designed to offer a sterile space to heal and build your immunity against the infectious influence of the world at large. The physical space is supported by my presence as someone who exists to coach and remind you why you are here and what you are trying to accomplish. It is impossible to be around me for long without having to question who you think you are and why you do what you do. My commitment is to help you see this integral process through to completion for the time you are here. I was fortunate to be exposed to people and experiences who helped me do the same long ago. Now it's my turn to pay it forward and do the same for others.

Authentic Values and Preferences: The Fundamental Self

"The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking -- not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
George Orwell, 1984

Importance can be defined by what most closely suits a person's values, and everyone's values are inherent and unique to them. Authentic preference requires discretion, while culture is the result of non-discretion. Discretion is the ability to choose, judge, evaluate, or prioritize. It's the product of conscious self-awareness. Culture, therefore, is anti-consciousness.

As culture is what you don't think about being true, it becomes a choice as soon as you start thinking. Once you are aware that something does not have to be the way it is, you are choosing for it to remain that way. The more you know, the more you think about, and the less influence culture has on you. Your consciousness expands to greater limits within your mind; your psychological horizons broaden. You become bigger, and the inherited identity shrinks.

After you put the work into knowing yourself, you may discover that your authentic values have much in common with your inherited culture. But who you continue to be in the world will have the critical difference of being a conscious choice in service of your authentic values. It will now be your consciousness and your discretion at work. So long as you choose them and know that you could choose otherwise, they are not unconscious products of culture.

Why do you brush your teeth twice a day? Is it because you've assessed that it's a good idea and that it's in line with your authentic values about keeping your teeth clean and healthy? Or is it because it's what you're supposed to do? Is it because everyone knows to brush their teeth twice a day, so you should probably stop asking stupid questions?

If so, that's cultural. No matter how good of an idea brushing your teeth twice a day might be, you're doing it without thinking about why. There may be very good reasons for you to brush your teeth twice a day, but you can't know that without extracting the act from the realm of unconscious culture and making it part of your conscious analysis. You can say the same thing about any cultural habit, from the way you dress to how you choose to have sex, get married, and raise children, which is a subject of frequent contention among Armenians.

I can think of only one reason to brush your teeth twice a day: because you choose to. And you will only choose to when you see that doing so contributes to acquiring your authentic values.

Similarly, I can think of only one reason why you should choose to listen to any type of music. It's not because it's what happens to be prevalent in your culture. It's also not for the opposite reason, which would be that it's unpopular in your culture and you want to feel rebellious and different from the norm. You should listen to music because you like it. After all, it's an expression of your authentic preference.

I can think of only one reason to marry someone, read a book, go to university, or get a job. It's that you see it will get you what you value. It's what you choose to do.

The point of cultural deprogramming is to free yourself from the false cultural conceptions you've inherited about yourself and life. But that's only the first step. After that, you begin the real journey of figuring out who you are and embodying it in your life.

Unfortunately, it's not enough to change your mentality. Your actions have to change to match the new way you are thinking. There's a difference between thinking and doing something, and I've found that Armenians frequently overlook that difference. Many pride themselves on thinking progressive thoughts or agreeing with interesting new ideas. They already get the emotional reward they seek just from entertaining the idea. That's just one of many common limitations here that must be overcome for the people of this culture to make real progress. They have to learn to act on what they know is true. They have to be confident in the results of their own analysis even if everyone else in their culture disagrees.

What good does it do you to have big dreams if you can't act on them, if the expectations of the people around you still limit you? Your heightened awareness might cause you to become more miserable until you act on it. You cannot ignore what you know you need to have a meaningful life. You can't go back to a state of ignorance once your mind has been opened.

Many Armenians will fail to act on what they know because they believe their friends, family, and the rest of their social support system will judge or attack them for thinking differently. The ideal outcome is for you to build a life where you are comfortable telling the people you care about who you really are and how you think. Anything else is not freedom. It is ongoing deception and inauthenticity. There will always be a big difference between who you perceive yourself to be and who you communicate you are to the people around you. How many more ways might you discover that you are different than how Armenian culture wants you to be if you just gave yourself the freedom to look? 

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