“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.
Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that has been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.
This is not her story.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams has shared a diagnosis I tend to agree with. It seems to me that the ecological crisis is a reflection of the fact that most people are basically miserable. Deep down inside they seem to think that this whole life-thing is a rip off. We behave as though our disappointments outweigh our gratitude. To not put too fine a point on it, as a species we are acting as if we were suicidally depressed. There is very little contentment, we are suffering a plague of poverty mentality that spends most every thought worrying we don’t have enough and scheming how we are going to get more. Being afraid to embrace our nakedness, we coat ourselves with character armors and go to battle with one another, with the earth, and with life itself.
Too dramatic? Ask yourself when was the last time you truly felt safe, secure, loved and appreciated, happy just to be, happy with things just the way they are, able to let tomorrow take care of itself? When was the last time you spent a day playing by a riverside, in a forest or on a mountain? Do you spend time exquisitely aware of the multitude of means by which the whole of this biosphere – all these countless sentient beings – are working to provide for you, sustain you, teach you and inspire you?
This widespread ailment of poverty mentality is sad, sad but not tragic since what is made by human beings can be unmade by human beings. It is not a cosmic law that insists that we run breathless every day in manic desperation to try and earn a glimmer of security from which we might gain a small taste of joy. Biological imperatives and social conformities need not ultimately define who we are. Awash in an environmental assault on contentment in an attempt to sell you stuff, it is still possible to remain unhooked. It just takes some skill in working with the equipment evolution has designed for us.
For the last few months we have been exploring this biological equipment, inquiring into how it is being used to process awareness within our species. This equipment is the real material we are given to work with as each and every one of us navigates the choices which make up our lives. Each and every one of us are participating equally in the manifestation of our species and its extended phenotypes – including the cars and power plants that just delivered the hottest month on record and the funny money systems currently groaning under the weight of central bank shenanigans.
One of the many things a contemplative learns is how there is a bodily component to every thought and feeling. The biological systems we have been examining these last few weeks offer a scientific ground for why. The kink in the neck or the throbbing in the temple, tenseness of the jaw or flexibility of of the spine are all going to be accompanied by mental impressions as well. Typically there is too much distraction from the external world to notice these physiological correlates but in the quite of a contemplative session the connections become more obvious.
The image of the human being as a stick figure was discussed back in April. This childhood artifact is almost all head with very little body. It was said that this “stick figure impoverishment” is how many of us spend most of our self-aware time, all wrapped up in our own heads. Yet we have seen that the flotsam of thoughts and feelings that we are conscious of rides on a deep set of roots reaching into the whole of the nervous system. In reality our thinking is not the isolated, ethereal, disconnected thing it seems to be but is actually a fundamental reflection of causes and conditions. Thinking provides another angle on the same single reality that is the relationship of container and contained, awareness and its environment.
With training people are able to occupy the present moment ever more completely. When the mind is not distracted by plans and worries on the one hand or daydreams and fantasies on the other, it can experience a relaxed focus on the present moment. There are countless details of the present moment that can serve as gates into a fuller experience. There is a texture to the atmosphere and the shapes of things defined by edges sharp or smooth and both carry an emotional tone, there is a type of color beyond color that tints the flesh of other human beings and an echo within the sounds of the world, to mention a few as I would try to wrap words around them.
Don’t settle for just the skull’s contents. Claim the brain stem, spinal column and wing-like weaving of its nerve cords as part of your inheritance as well. This is what is moving through space and time. This is the vehicle you are and the path you will traverse.
The discussions of the last few months have been providing contextual background for the topic of compassion which we will be taking up in the next cycle of posts. The contextual material began by examining our desire to know the future, a desire more than a few investors are experiencing rather acutely this week as the Dow Jones and the S&P are on track for their worse monthly loses in six years. We then took up the question of what tomorrow in our land might actually look like if we allow ourselves to be guided by the idea that techno-utopia or apocalyptic scenarios. A question that has grown weightier throughout the course of the summer as drought and wildfires broke records, racial violence flared and Caesar posturing among the presidential candidates reached new lows.
The importance and purity of intention and the difficulty of thinking about the big issues of our time were then addressed before launching into a series of posts about evolution. Our examination of evolution, both collectively in adaptations and individually in the studies of evo-devo, has been to supply us with a minimum common understanding. There were detours into a few of the contingent biological and physiological details of how evolutionary factors have played out and the resulting systems that were fashioned.
We looked at the role of cooperation in addition to competition in the game of survival of the fittest and found there is more than a little evidence to indicate our capitalist, winner take all, devil take the hindmost, interpretation of Darwin is nothing more than a caricature of the complexities involved in the real biospheric relationships among species and their environments. After examining the evolution of thought and feeling we turned our attention to the manipulation of these by the sophisticated advertising and PR industries living vampire-like off the collective mind.
This opened the way for a discussion of the mind and the brain. Learning about how there are functional parts and pieces in our mental lives illustrated how contemplative work might proceed. It also brought up the question about how all these parts and pieces might work together which was answered by illustrating the power of connections to implement logic around embodied information. As a sort of summary of the whole cycle, last week took up the important role of the spinal column in our human form and our spiritual traditions.
Some familiarity with the details of evolution, cognitive science and neuroscience seem helpful for anyone engaged in contemplative practices or concerned about the ecological unraveling. Without this shared context discussions that recommend the development of compassion can sound like no more than a new twist on the old time gospel hour; preachy, stuffy and full of ethical morality being sold by hypocrites. It is my hope that this whole misunderstanding can be avoided by positioning our upcoming discussion squarely in a realm more akin to the aeons of deep time and the vastness of deep space or at the very least within the matrix of mystery we humans actually are; the matrix of DNA, biology, planetary formation and consciousness that define us.
Yes, we are concerned with the development of character and yes, thoughts and feelings do not just arise out of nowhere. Now we will begin contemplating what it means that the thoughts and feelings of other sentient beings are just as real to them as yours are to you.
This post started with a quote from Douglas Adams and I would like to close it with a comment from another Adams, Patch Adams. In a conversation concerning his work with children badly burned by bombs in war zones Patch said, “You know, there is no high as high as truly helping someone.” In his eye was reflected both the pain and the twinkle he is well known for.
We are setting our sights on destroying an illusion, the illusion that we are an ego in isolation. We will be working on trading in our poverty mentality for the inconceivable wealth of the inner riches of charity.