I am not sure which set of dogmatic rulership came up with the saying, “we’re judged by the company we keep,” but it’s a good one (besides the whole “judgment” thing). Not only can we likely be assessed by noting the characteristics of those we spend the most time with, but we do also, actually, become more like them.
The limbic brain – responsible for our interdependent regulatory functions and the characteristic of our humanity that enables us to sense and care for others – is what is known as a partially “open-loop” system. This means that it is actually regulated and changed according to its interactions with our environment, specifically other limbic brains.
A huge aspect of who we are – memory, vocal ability, our desire to care for our own, play, etc. – is formed by our symbiotic interactions with those whose company we keep.
In a process called “limbic regulation” the “human body constantly fine-tunes many thousands of physiologic parameters – heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature, immune function, oxygen saturation, levels of sugars, hormones, salts, ions, metabolites.” In an “open-loop arrangement an individual does not direct all of his own functions. A second person transmits regulatory information that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function, and more – inside the body of the first. The reciprocal process occurs simultaneously: the first person regulates the physiology of the second, even as he himself is regulated. Neither is a functioning whole on his own; each has open loops that only somebody else can complete.”
(Above quotations from “A General Theory of Love” by Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D. and Richard Lannon, M.D., a book about the neurophysiology and biochemistry of love, attachment and human develeopment.)
This wisdom, intuitively (another limbic brain process), is alive and well in spiritual traditions. The function of “transmission” between student and teacher is based on this idea of limbic regulation and can been likened to a tuning fork. The “vibration” of the teacher, who has recognized their true nature, is resonating wave-lengths of equanimity, peace, open-heartedness, compassion, wisdom and spontaneity. So, by being near this vibration one gets “in tune” with their own experience of the expression of their true nature, which will look different from the teacher on the surface but will emanate from the same common base – the source of who we all are.
Furthermore, in Ayurvedic medicine, there is the understanding that we share “ojas” – the quasi physical/spiritual energy of our life’s immunity, happiness, and interconnection. Spiritual “kulas”, families of practitioners within the same lineage, often have a precept and practice of keeping the company of the spiritual and the wise. Of course, any grounded system will simultaneously warn against using this awareness as an excuse to be arrogant, aloof, or disconnected from the so-called “common man.”
However, it would do us good to call to question the company we keep. And, then, when we do find ourselves in the presence of seedy characters then we can humbly attempt to provide them with some limbic regulation of sanity and compassion.
One of the environments that we culturally spend the most time in is work. Most of us are either at work, or at home with our families with relatively short interactions elsewhere with others.
Thus, our work culture has a huge impact on who we are.
And, more importantly for us family folk, the manner in which we are regulated by those we are close to at work has a direct effect on the way we will influence our families when we get home.
Again, I am not saying we should become snobs and wall ourselves off in our office and say, “Sorry, you can’t come in here because I don’t want your limbic brain to affect my kid when I get home.” That’s a bit crazy. But, on a day-to-day basis it is wise to… well… choose our company wisely. Knowing what we know of limbic regulation and simple common sense why wouldn’t we take care to assess the company we keep and make an effort to be around people whose values we want to ingest, whose health we want to rub off on us and whose steadiness will contribute to the stability of our own lives?
This has been the common sense behind the design of “intentional/spiritual communities” for… forever. We have always lived as villages, tribes and large extended families that share communal pools of spirit, wisdom, health, and happiness (not to mention chores and tasks). Only now, there is some sort of idea that we must have lived that way because we couldn’t afford, or were not qualified to succeed at, the American dream with more and more isolated, individual family abodes.
This notion of individualism ignores the wisdom of our ancestors who were free to choose to live in simple accommodations alongside their kin, with kids crawling all about and barely a moment for “personal time.” This is not just some romantic notion of times past. To live this way is to our biological advantage and accords with our physiological and emotional design. On the other hand, my teacher Dharmanidhi Sarasvati, who is a constant student of human behavior once said, and I paraphrase, “I am not sure yet what the payoff is for the way Americans choose to live in isolated nuclear family units other than that it’s a bit more quiet.”
I am happy that science is also growing aware of the importance of community and the direct impact of the company we keep.