Stories

“On this level, the only question which matters, whether someone is ruler of the Roman Empire or a humble fisherman, is what sort of person they are. How do they measure up inwardly to the challenge of what it is to be human? Are they centered on the ego or on the Self? Are they weak, self-centered, heartless, greedy, vain, proud, cruel, treacherous, mean-spirited, lustful, bad-tempered, vengeful, intolerant, narrow-minded, humorless, lazy, irresponsible and ultimately immature? Or are they centered on that deeper ego-transcending level of the personality which can make them strong, selfless, loving, generous, modest, self-effacing, compassionate, loyal, understanding, good-humored, self-disciplined, even-tempered, merciful, tolerant, hard-working, responsible and ultimately mature?”
The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker

 

In Mahayana Buddhism a distinction is made between loving-kindness and compassion. Compassion is the aspiration to relieve the suffering of others. Loving-kindness is the aspiration that all beings might be happy. Wanting one implies the other. Both are said to be boundless aspirations in that they are all inclusive, shutting no-one out under any circumstances. The aspirations also have a boundless quality to them as they are experienced when they are subjects for contemplation. The desire, hope, and aspiration can increase further and further, the clarity of its pure purpose becoming more and more penetrating and all pervasive.

In a typical contemplative progression we first wrap these heart-thoughts around our loved ones. Loving-kindness and compassion, are these not almost the very definition of love? To want another to be free of what hurts and pains them can become an ego-transcending ‘urge’ as strong as anything within our psyche, an element of our makeup more than capable of sweeping us away with its intensity. The same purity that makes the experience of compassion feel so fundamental to our very being accompanies the hope that the loved one will enjoy an honest happiness within their experiences of living.

As the contemplation progresses these aspirations are extended to eventually include all sentient beings. First we arouse loving-kindness and compassion for those we love and then to those we feel neutral about and finally to those we hate. Sometimes the contemplations start with the enemies or if a visualization is involved you place them in front of oneself and one’s loved ones. Who could benefit more from the healing enlightenment these emotions of love carry? What greater good might come to many than when a tyrant sees the light and is transformed?

Even the most hardened criminals will have moments in which these insights breakthrough and lay their claim to the inner world of the conscience and wisdoms deep within their own subjectivity. Perhaps the crack in the armor will be cheapened by sickeningly sweet sentimentality yet still it will carry its archetypal message. These powerful desires for another’s well-being touch on the core meaning our species finds and passes on in all of our stories and mythologies.

The human psyche is molded around its archetypal themes from the early days of our nursery rhymes. As we grow through the developmental stages evolution has designed for our bodies, our minds similarly mature to a fuller expression of their inborn potential. The mind of the infant is anything but a blank slate. It is primed for far-reaching reactions to particular inputs. Language acquisition is known to work by key sensory experiences happening in key developmental periods. Children unfortunate enough to have not been exposed to language during these critical developmental periods are never able to become fluent; the language acquisition centers of their brains are not functionally wired up. The exposure of the brain to its key archetypal stimuli follows the same type of process. Working with these key images is how awareness navigates its journey to an adult consciousness.

One interesting hypothesis is that we do not have the instincts to guide us to psychological maturity and so have invented archetypal storytelling to make up for it.

As I have mentioned before we feel these things in our guts or, as we say, in our bones. Our minds are swimming in a sea of stories as all-pervasive for them as the atmosphere is for our bodies. Those tales with a happy ending feature protagonists working in harmony with the ego-transcendence of loving others. Those tales that end in tragedy are populated by characters that are seduced, confused or bewitched by the ego’s selfishness. Depending on which story we find ourselves in – and they lived happily ever after, or, they died a violent death.

The blindness of the ego cannot weigh the value of other sentient beings equal to itself, yet this is just what objectivity demands. Delusional on this score, the protagonists of tragedy are kicking against the very grain of human reality. All such schemes are destined to fail. But the perpetrators are not the only ones to suffer. The dark tales also warn us that an enormous amount of pain and suffering can be inflicted on the people around the characters swirling down the drain. Families, communities and whole nations can be drawn into the maelstrom.

Even the horror tales full of monsters and murderers pay a backhanded compliment to the same basic plot of our emotional lives. In some of these tales evil seems to be in ascendancy yet the tales need a context that implicitly recognizes the moral order of the human universe. Dracula and Hannibal Lecture carry the same signal; they are outsiders throwing the structures of ‘sane’ humanity into stark relief.

Armed with our stories we face the news.

It is hard to look at the most painful places in our world, where the suffering is the greatest. This is in part because it is frightening when we recognize how often passionate emotions are fueling these tragedies. War, rape and torture are often accompanied by hot heads aflame with anger and hate.

Grinding poverty, structural inequality and the huddling masses of refugees are no less the result of highly charged emotional decisions and reactions but this is harder to see since the fateful decisions are a few steps removed from their fruit. All the emotions related to establishing boundaries between ‘us and them’ are at play, designing and sustaining these long term attributes of globalization.

When we turn our attention to the interpersonal world the emotions are equally suspect. The great plays, novels, and movies are shaped around the grasp of life’s imperatives and fundamentals we all share. This is why when we see a comedy or a tragedy we instantly understand somewhere deep inside why things turned out the way they did. This is also why when the archetypal dramas are thwarted, as they so often are in modern arts, they leave us filling unsatisfied, as if they were somehow unfinished works or no more than the husk of the right symbols but missing something needed to make them real for us.

Our artists are reflecting our headlines. They bring us crimes of passions, crimes of greed, and crimes of desperation – each are daily fare on several programs throughout the world. The choice offered is abundant. It is everywhere the same: the emotions are capable of destroying lives, inflicting pain on oneself and others, twisting reason around dogmas and ideologies and generally increasing the quota of suffering on this planet.

All of this is true, a part of the primal human experience throughout our history. The deepest and most profound aspects of the human experience are accompanied by emotion yet it is just this which is also capable of driving us crazy.

Fear of what our emotional nature can do has led to attempts to repress it. This is most obvious in all those attempts to explain the power of reasoning as a skill divorced from values. This is a particularly seductive temptation for our Faustian culture and one which we have already touched on in previous posts. Less obviously, much of what parades around as deeply emotional entertainments and works of art are no more than the empty shells of sentimental manipulations of all the right symbols and serve to shock and titillate the ego more than they serve to teach, train and guide the evolutionary well-springs within us. All this ‘If it feels good do it, just do it’ ethos accompanied by cheap sex and violence is a set of sham feelings, created pre-packaged to suppress awareness of the real emotional depths. To a first degree of accuracy we could say that all these fruits of the Romantics are simply the most sophisticated means of repressing our emotions we have yet hit upon. I would suggest it is wise to recognize the power these things have and choose very carefully from the many offerings which ones we will allow our minds to participate in.

As contemplatives we work with what we hope to be techniques that encourage the wisdom that sees its way to living meaningfully, as an aid and help-meet to ourselves and others. Recognizing the nature of the mind we gently seek to train it. In these efforts the calming peace of Shamata meditation, with its invocation of the sympathetic nervous system’s contentment circuits, acts as a cooling, refreshing breeze, bringing a spaciousness that defeats the claustrophobic strangulation of emotional clinging.

Ego would like nothing more than to be able to dominate the emotional life. Perhaps the central temptation a yogi needs to be wary of is the desire to have bliss on demand through the use of meditative techniques. The many lives blasted by dabbling in advanced techniques without years of preparation witnesses that these are very real dangers on the mystic paths. The emotions are elements of our design that far exceed the ego’s grasp and lie outside its control. (Part of what Sigmund Freud taught his suffering patient was to recognize that we are not responsible for our feelings.) The contemplative’s gentle touch expresses a willingness to wait on them, allowing them to express themselves in their own good time. In our practice we concentrate on learning to abide in a peacefully content place from which we can observe the comings and goings of all the elements of our inner landscapes, emotions included.

This trains us in the opposite of clinging to our desires. It teaches us slowly to be able to celebrate that which is beautiful, abide with that which is uncomfortable and endure that which pains us. Eventually such practice develops a type of presence within the re-wired nervous system that remains undimmed by the comings and goings of external life. We participate in what the monastics of the West have called practicing the presence of god.

In these fruition states of human potential we glimpse something of the real human dignity that hides within us all. Our teachers embody the virtuous aspects enumerated above by Christopher Booker, becoming lights in our world. They encourage us in the day by day, step by step, drip by drip work of psychological maturation. And they tell wonderful stories.

To Feel

“Populations of marine mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have declined by 49% since 1970, a report says… The document was prepared by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London… The authors analysed more than 1,200 species of marine creatures in the past 45 years.”
BBC News, Marine population halved since 1970

 

How does knowing this make you feel? How long do you have to contemplate it before you start to feel what it really means at all? Does it just remain titillating or sentimental, or does it open up something deeper?

The most profound of our thoughts are accompanied by strong emotional values. The insight of our wisdom, as well as the adoration of our love, are precious examples of the harmony of thought and feeling our minds are capable of. Yet we are sick with the singular vision Blake warned us about; we have dared to see feeling as the primitive step child of the mind.

This post attempts to reframe what it is to feel the truth of something. It is time to talk a bit more poetically, hoping to calm the beast, sooth the sickness.

Each of us is fully engaged in the struggle of life. Each of us is life fully engaged in the struggle. Though our conscious minds may wander hither and yon, not a moment goes by that we are not 100% involved in this mystery in our totality. Yet, this encounter with the real only ever takes place on the tiniest of slivers of the here and now. Our engagement of say the molecular dances of our structural presence interfacing its energetic exchanges with the molecular structures of its environments – only ever takes place in that fleeting nanosecond of the present moment.

Our minds also are only ever in a single, complex yet fleeting state. The stream of consciousness which is our most intimate experience consists of just this ever changing awareness. Interestingly however, the brain’s image making faculty has been put to use by evolution to break out of the restrictions inherent in an awareness limited to only the here and now. With mind’s awareness the output of the nervous system processing the radically momentary nature of the molecular dances is absorbed in the brain’s neurological plasticity. A part of the organism’s form is shaped by the events it encounters and in its most basic sense a memory is made by the process. Transcending the immediate moment, the memory glues the past to the present, which simultaneously opens up speculations about the future.

We experience the content of this phenomenon, these mental constructs of past and future, as a field of causes and effects. Through feeling we learn to select among them; desiring some effects we practice their causes and seek to avoid their opposites. We experience our experience as real because our encounters with our environments, internal and external, follow lawful developments. We plant an acorn seed and will see an acorn develop, not a cantaloupe. If cantaloupes appear we know we are in a dream, fantasy or otherwise carried away by our imagination. Developing circumstances are rather like evolving state machines exploring what is possible throughout the whole state space earth life has access to. The rules that move these states along, transforming one state into another, are what we perceive as cause and effect. Advanced meditations such as the Vajra Slivers deconstruct even this most fundamental relationship as being in any sense ultimately real. The lack of fearful clinging to fixed features of our philosophical fantasies helps when cognitive models get turned upside down.

The ever-changing flux of the present nano-moment is embodied in the body’s internal and external environment and the brain states apprehending this relationship. Nowhere do we find the slightest unchanging element to hold onto. Nowhere is there a solid foundation on which anything could be built, yet there is in this very fact itself an unchanging feature. Part of how we experience this unchanging feature is what we believe to be causes and conditions, actions and reactions. Memory delivers this sort of consistency. Memories are then made relevant to us by the feeling tone that accompanies them.

Great freedom, even complete liberation is said to dwell somewhere around these points. For my part there seems to be something profound in how our discoveries of random events, that is causeless events, at the sub-atomic level in Quantum Mechanics compliments the Vajra Slivers deconstruction of rational apperception of events as the result of causes and conditions. Here there is an ultimate truth complimenting the relative truth of our experience found in both eastern and western analysis of what ultimate reality might consist of.

This ultimate just outlined is how I consider the emptiness teachings relevant to living well. The emptiness is this lack of fixed, deterministic features built into the universe at the ultimate level. Emptiness in not void, nihilism or chaos. It is the birth place of the nano-moment of reality, the mother of the interdependent configurations of all that exists in all its countless variations. This grants a freedom more profound and pervasive than it is easy for our minds to comprehend. In this moment choices are made.

Much of what keeps us trapped are habitual emotional patterns our brains have laid down over the years. Character is shaped by these processes for better and for worse. When we are stuck in a rut it may seem changing our habitual responses is impossible yet the emptiness teachings assure us it is not. In the next moment a shocking degree of freedom is available. It is easy for us to become comfortable with the habitual ways in which we feel: our pleasures and pains, complaints and praises all feel so familiar, even when they hurt.

This is important when we turn our attention to that powerfully intimate aspect which inevitably accompanies each and every moment of our conscious experience: its emotional flavor. Emptiness, state machines, ultimate and relative truth – these are ways of laying out a view of things in which reality’s own awareness and intelligence is directly perceived through what sentient beings are able to feel about what they are able to think. This felt-thinking is the key into the storehouse of the real, the wedding ring by which we come to know Mr. and Mrs. Non-Duality. Raw awareness is a feeling, a sense. It’s knowing is immediate. At its ultimate it is what we call omniscience.

This isn’t owned by anyone, but consciousness can participate in it: the selflessness of the Buddha. The Buddha is said to be a completely awake human being, awake to the full profundity of being human. This awaken state is said to be one of blissful compassion, Bodhichitta in Sanskrit. The wakeful apperception is not of rational mind alone, which as we have seen is basically a probability calculator, but consists of a type of feeling beyond feeling: bliss. It comes from a type of reason beyond reason: compassion.

This is not at all like Romanticism’s elevation of feeling above thinking with its implication that they shall forever be at war. This is reasoning in its most basic need, which is not coldly calculating but finding meaning. “The heart has reasons the reason knows not of” as Pascal had it. We need a reason to live; our deepest hunger of all is to have lead a meaningful life. This is reason beyond calculating. Quite simply, after all is said and done, after all the heights and depths have been plumbed, what remains is the desire to relieve the suffering of others by sharing this view that is beyond all suffering: bliss and compassion inseparable.

The authenticity of the human experience is something we all have access to. In fact, it is inevitable that each and every one of us will encounter our roots sooner or later, in one form or another. These encounters do not take place in our everyday states of mind; they form the boundaries of awareness itself. While the value of altered states of consciousness and the insights they are able to provide is off the radar of the current Western intelligentsia, their critical role in human affairs remains unaffected. This is obvious in the hospice but no less so in all those places where encounters between people ‘get real’ as we say. We just lack the vocabulary to express the value of these things in our own idioms, hence the borrowings of eastern trappings as an authentic Western Buddhism begins to take root.

As we continue with our explorations of compassion over the next few weeks let there always be in the background this simple, almost childlike joyful gratitude warming our immediate experience, a kind of making of the secular into the sacred, an elevation of reality. We are indeed lucky students:

All sentient beings equally participate in the timelessness of the unchanging ultimate at the heart of the ever-changing relative; the Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus. It is seen in the depth of wondrous mystery reflected in one another’s eyes, in the marine life that remains, the sun and moon, the whole dream tapestry in which our stories weave their own threads…

Emotion Systems

Last week we looked at the mammalian evolution of caring for individual offspring. The strength of the parent and child bond was emphasized by mentioning the surrogate mother experiments designed to weigh the relative importance of touch and food. There is much more to say about the nature of the life forms most closely related to ourselves and how at times their adaptations can throw light on human behavior. It is as if we are looking at ourselves in an ancient mirror. However the conversation is going to shift a bit now. The pieces are in place for rooting our understanding of compassion in a context other than Sunday school or ethics class. Building on this evolutionary knowledge as our contextual background we will begin to examine our human psychology more directly.

This week we come to one of those core insights from modern science that can help us understand the work of the contemplative: a model of our emotional regulatory systems. This model is explored in more detail by Dr. Paul Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind and in the 2005 paper A Neurobehavioral model of affiliative bonding: Implications for conceptualizing a human trait of affiliation by Depue and Morrone-Strupinsky.  One value of this particular model is in directing our attention to the larger picture that includes the full range of possible emotional experiences. In the model we find a whole system our culture tends to ignore, take for granted or dismisses as irrelevant to the tasks of society. It is this very system contemplative practice is designed to nurture and enhance, but that is getting ahead of our story.

Affect-regulation-systemsThese emotional regulatory systems are the deep seated biochemical solutions evolutionary selection has found for promoting survival and reproduction.

Through feelings it is possible to guide the behavior of an organism, to organize it in such a way that they seek after some things while avoiding others. By making an organism feel pleasure or pain, fear or contentment, anxiety or excitement as they encounter a variety of conditions, those organisms will naturally seek after some things while avoiding others. Emotions provide the energy behind the moment by moment decision making that chooses which behavior to perform. Each of us understands intimately how feelings provide the juice to do what we do.

This is most obvious in the emotional fight or flight reactions to threats. This emotional regulation system increases stress levels providing an immediate readiness to deal with danger. The hormones cortisol, vasopressin and adrenaline surge through the system with all the physiological reactions each of us know well; the racing heart and twisted stomach caused by a redirection of blood flow in preparation for violent muscular activity. The sympathetic nervous system kicks off these changes. The effect is to run or fight but can also cause the organism to freeze, submit or stop doing particular things. Evolution designed this system to protect us. In fact, the brain gives priority to handling threats over pleasures; it’s the nature of the beast as we say. Remembering that the anger, anxiety or disgust we might feel are ancient survival signals can aid us in experiencing them with mindfulness.

The other obvious example of an emotional regulatory system is the emotional patterns that support our efforts to work hard at obtaining status and resources for ourselves and our loved ones. We are constructed to find it pleasurable and satisfying to be able to harvest the earth’s bounty in a way that directly supports the continued survival of ourselves and our kin. In mammalian societies, including ours, access to resources is bound up with one’s status. We see this play out in countless ways in our hyper-competitive times from the husband able to purchase an SUV for his wife through to the university diploma mills that have arisen since alternative means of entering the middle and upper classes have been, for the most part, moved offshore.

This achievement emotional regulatory system is the one that colors all the elements of life related to success and failure, achievement, striving to reach goals and accomplishing things. We feel good when we get an A on the test or a promotion at work. Obversely, losing a job or flunking out of a class can make us feel worthless, cut off from full participation in the society of which we are a part. This system is how culturally valued traits are also valued by us as individuals. Of course, it is possible to belong to a culture who has a value system opposite that of the dominate culture, where getting an A on a test, for instance, is verboten.

This achievement emotional regulatory system is the one most recognized as a source of happiness by the over-developed cultures. Our most popular stories and mass media messages cluster around the great satisfactions available to the rich consumer. Getting ahead is worth any sacrifice since it opens the door to the cornucopia of consumer goods. What has gotten lost in this monomaniacal onslaught is that there is in fact two forms of happiness our emotional systems are capable of experiencing. The second one, it turns out, is in direct competition to this achievement system. It is designed to provide a rest from its dictates in support of the overall homeostasis of the organism’s emotional regulation. Sadly, the hyper-capitalism of our time has more often than not seen it as a threat to its continued domination and poured not a few resources into obscuring its role and denigrating its value for a life well lived.

What is this system so repressed as to become a knowledge most often encountered in our culture’s byways? The parasympathetic nervous system is the other half of the story, the emotional regulatory system that allows us to “rest and digest.” Consider the physiological state that results from the sympathetic nervous system firing off the fight or flight response. That is not a state that is sustainable as it shuts down the digestive processes and generally primes the body to increase its speed and strength at the expense of every other physiologically necessary system. It needs a counterbalancing system.

This is the system that allows us to experience a sense of peacefulness, a soothing quiescence. The inner calm that the contemplative encounters through their practice of meditation is related to allowing this system the time and space it needs to pervade the body and mind. It is an important system for sensing how we are connected to others. It plays a crucial role in acts of affection and kindness.

This second form of happiness our emotional makeup makes available is summed up rather well in a single word: contentment.

Dr. Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind explains: “Contentment means being happy with the way things are and feeling safe, not striving or wanting. It is an inner peacefulness that’s quite a different positive feeling from the hyped-up excitement of ‘striving and succeeding’ feeling of the incentive / resource-seeking system. It is also different from feelings that are often associated with boredom or a kind of emptiness. When people practice meditation and ‘slowing-down’, these are the feelings they report: ‘not-wanting’, an inner calm and a connectedness to others.”

Thinking about my acquaintances, friends and family, about the messages my culture produces and the things it promotes and celebrates, I am struck by how little contentment anyone seems to display. When was the last time you were able to take a lazy summer afternoon just to enjoy being alive? Do you often feel satisfied with what you experience without a nagging urge to do more? Can you be content with what you have and what you are or must there always be an ongoing scheming to get and become ever more and more and more? Can you recall when you last felt secure and satisfied enough to let the future take care of itself?

If you felt no threats or fears and you were satisfied with your responsibilities and accomplishments, would you not wish all beings well?

Contentment is of course the one emotional state that people in a consumer society are never supposed to feel for long. All advertising is witness to the need for consumers to always feel less than satisfied with their existing circumstances. Ironically, in advertising we also see a backhanded compliment to the role of this emotional regulatory system in so far as the great, elusive promised outcome of every purchase is to finally allow the buyer to be – content.

The outline of this model can be summarized in a few key neurological facts. The fight or flight system involves the brain’s fast acting amygdala, the sympathetic nervous system and the stress hormone cortisol. The reward and incentive system involves the brain chemical dopamine and the brain’s pleasure circuits. The soothing system involves the parasympathetic nervous system and often the hormone oxytocin. All three systems work together to keep an organism balanced.

The value of this rather simple model is to remind us that while we have the dark sufferings of fear, pain and loss, we also have the happiness of achievement and the happiness of gratitude. The model makes explicit the way in which human happiness comes in two flavors and draws our attention to the one which we have let atrophy as individuals and as a society.

What research has shown is that the parasympathetic nervous system is not stimulated and engaged by climbing over others in a race to the top, nor by any of the status symbols that accompany the climb. Nor is it stimulated by the willingness to engage in violent acts, threatening others and spreading fear. It is instead stimulated by being held, by the soft caresses of a caring individual, by the tactile encounter with cloth instead of wire and wood.

All three emotional regulatory systems are needed and each plays a critically important role in the continuation of the species. Though the systems may at times strike us as rather crude and prone to maladaptive responses to the modern world, even perhaps being the Achilles heel by which we may be manipulated into our own destruction, none-the-less they are the factors of our lives that will ultimately determine whether our experience of being human is basically positive or otherwise.

I think this is important.

Those who find life worth living will work to preserve their planetary home which made it possible. The overflowing goodwill it inspires encourages a desire to share the good fortune with everyone, future generations included.

Those who do not find life worth the suffering and fear that accompanies it are capable of watching the destruction of the planet from the sidelines. For most in this camp it is not that there is an active hate seeking to destroy as much of the earth as possible, they simply lack the strength of motivation to actually change their lifestyles in response to the needs of a sustainably flourishing future.

Why?

I think this is the question of our time.

Mammals

“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?”
Silly Love Songs, Paul McCartney

 

The evolution and maintenance of life on this planet has relied on the dual adaptations of competition and cooperation. Both characteristics are displayed in the behaviors of every living thing from the simplest single celled amoeba to the most complex neural networks found in the human being. Complete analysis of the whole recognizes that cooperation is the necessary context for the acts of competition, after all there is far more time spent resting, feeding and foraging than fighting and these are acts of cooperating with the environment.

One form of evolutionary cooperation is the myriad ways by which living creatures relate to their offspring. The spectrum here is fascinating and right out of a surrealists’ fevered dream.

Among the insects it is not uncommon encounter items like a spiders nest with thousands of tiny spiders suddenly sprouting from the little white fuzzy ball that had been their nest. Those tiny spiders all run hither and yon to fates dictated purely by their environment. The mother spider is never going to deliver a meal or a lesson. She chose the place the birth event would take place guided by her own form of intelligence embodied in her own form of consciousness. The spider branch on the evolutionary tree could be said to embody an awareness of the world designed to successfully place these egg nests as the final step of their reproduction recipe.

Birds also utilize nests but for them it holds only a few eggs and the birth event is accompanied by the parent or parents providing the young with the food and warmth they need to live. This providing will continue for quite some time during which the behavior being displayed indicates that there is nothing more meaningful to the parents than the well-being of their offspring. This is not an anthropomorphic projection, it was stated carefully. Whatever ‘meaning’ might ‘mean’ to a bird, it is something guiding their moment to moment choice-making that is purposeful.

With reptiles, if not giving live birth, we also find there are fewer eggs yet generally the same lack of parental care we observe among the insects. Indeed when we say someone is cold-blooded like a reptile what we mean is that they are displaying a lack of caring for other individuals.

Something fascinating began with the evolution of mammals. The prime evolutionary imperative of life – to survive long enough to reproduce – was couched in terms of extensive nurture offered to only very few offspring. The exploration of evolution’s probability space here turned away from the strategy of the spider’s thousands to concentrate on the success of one or two. Whereas the algorithm the spider is taking to the probability game of survival is one of quantity, the algorithm of the mammal is one of quality. Each is viable. They are simply exploring different aspects of possible genetic expression, different branches of the evolutionary bush.

It is extraordinary that the caring for individuals as individuals, which we humans christen love and value above all things, is first found in a form we recognize as similar to our own in the evolutionary story of the mammals. With the mammals we recognize that the behaviors seen are reflecting something new in the world; caring for another’s well-being as much as one’s own. In a word, acts of compassion become not just possible as an exceptional rare occurrence, as we occasionally see among all animals species, but becomes the operating procedure guiding nurturing behavior.

The necessity for parental units to tend to the needs of their young came about as the young remained  longer and longer in a helpless stage of continued development after being born. This was one of those evolutionary breakthroughs that has proven to hold exquisite promise. By allowing the Evo-Devo activities to continue during the period in which the newborn is processing sensory signals from the environment in which it will live, evolution hit on a functional bootstrapping of information content.Using this interplay between developing biology and the environment the development of the individual organism can be guided into unprecedented structural complexities.

Numerous environmental signals are known to influence genetic expressions. The best documented seems to be the differences that unfold between those raised in environments that are experiencing lean times versus those capable of providing resources in abundance. That malnutrition molds nervous systems is a well-known fact. Less obviously physical factors are also recognized as having the potential to leave long term imprints on the developing nervous system. It is not just psychotherapy that claims early childhood experience can influence adult behavior; research has shown the same thing in laboratory conditions using our genetic kissing cousins.

Among mammals it is the primates that offer us the invaluable opportunity to compare ourselves with a species that is very similar to ourselves genetically. Time and again characteristics found in the lives of monkeys and apes have also been teased out of the history of human behavior. Our ways of war are not wholly dissimilar to those of the chimpanzees and our ways of love not wholly dissimilar to those of the Bonobos – not to mention the pecking order hierarchy, alpha males, postures of submission and dominance and the whole host of other deeply rooted behaviors the evolutionary psychologists are busy researching.

This lends poignancy to the rather cruel experiments of Dr. Harry Harlow in the 1950s on the mother-child bond found among primates. At this time the common consensus in the West was that physical contact between mothers and their children would spoil them, leading to stunted development and debilitating character flaws. Against this sterile doctrine Dr. Harlow demonstrated that the physical contacts between mother and infant are absolutely essential for the proper development of the young. The role of “contact comfort” was given scientific standing.

He worked with Rhesus macaques in a number of experiments designed to investigate the mother-child bond. His most (in)famous is the surrogate mother series. By constructing surrogate mothers out of wire and wood he was able to discover a need for tactile contact much stronger than anyone had previously suspected. In the basic surrogate mother experiment an infant is removed from his or her mother at birth and placed in the vicinity of models of monkey mothers constructed out of wire and wood. They found that each monkey recognized and showed preference for their own model, quickly learning to recognize its distinguishing features from all the others.

In one experiment some of the model mothers were covered in cloth and others were not. Inevitably the cloth covered ones were the ones the infants clung to. Taking this experiment one step farther they then added a bottle of food to the model without cloth yet still the monkey infant would cling to the model with the cloth, only visiting the other to quickly eat. Basically, science was able to prove that there is much more going on in the mammalian mother-child bond than just a sharing of milk.

rochat_wired-vs-cloth-motherThe experiments continued to investigate the differences between behaviors of monkeys that had access to their surrogate mothers and those that did not. In one setup the infants were placed in an environment populated with new and unknown objects. The monkeys who could embrace the mother were much more likely to eventually wander in an exploratory mode, curiously investigating the new environmental features. The monkeys without the mother surrogates tended to cower unmoving, sucking their thumbs. A similar finding occurred when a fear inducing stimulus was presented.

These different responses were not only found in the behaviors but also were reflected in the physiology of the infants. Those without access to the cloth covered surrogate mothers frequently had diarrhea and other signs of poor digestion which has been attributed to the psychological stress of lacking “contact comfort.”

At a time when behaviorism was the dominate psychological theory these were explosive findings. The behaviorists dismissed the effects of emotions, for them the mother-child bond was just the result of being fed. Pavlov’s dogs were their paradigmatic experiment; feeding and starvation were their keys to understanding and controlling behavior. Now here comes along measurable proof that mammals are not quite so overly mechanical after all. This war of ideas was not lost on Dr. Harlow who first presented his findings at the sixty-sixth Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association on August 31, 1958. He entitled his address “The Nature of Love.”

It was also in the 1950s that the molecular structure of oxytocin was mapped. This magical chemical, both a hormone influencing the brain through the blood stream and a neurotransmitter, was considered the pregnancy drug because it induces or augments labor and is produced during nursing. With the discovery of oxytocin receptors in the brain and heart as well as in the uterus an expanded research program was started. Today oxytocin is recognized as a major player in the chemistry of the brain. It is associated with social bonding in a number of forms, including the most intimate bonding of all; levels of oxytocin peak during orgasm in both men and women. Its molecular structure was mapped in 1953 by Vincent du Vigneaud who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work in 1955. Although it would be decades before biochemistry fully replaced the cruder material reductionism of the behaviorist, the same mechanical dismissal of the power of love as nothing more than an illusion among robots is not hard to find. As if because love is as real as chemicals, it is somehow less real in fact.

Graduation

This is the one year anniversary of the Mindful Ecology blog. To celebrate, today we are having a graduation ceremony for our virtual community. It is a good time to pause a moment and appreciate the journey we have taken together. Not that my writing is all that, but that all those who have found themselves returning to it week after week are without doubt a very unique community of caring and curious individuals.

This site generally receives somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand visits a month and there are currently over three hundred subscribers. I want to take this chance to thank each and every one of you. People willing to spend time working on their own minds for the sake of the planet’s health and future hold the light of hope in these very dark times. I truly believe that.

Each of you have traveled a unique path to have nurtured an interest in contemplative sciences coupled with concern about the ongoing collapse of our fossils fuel based industrial civilization. Though I have no hot line to Gaia (at least no more so than anyone else) it does seem to me that human consciousness planet-wide is responding to the ecological crisis by here and there nurturing a number of alternative lifestyles. This is most visible in the changing value systems where the rewards a society offers are no longer enticing to an increasing percentage of its members. The fast cars and big houses, not to mention the ‘cocaine off the backs of strippers’ as a friend once described the Wall Street ethos,  are being seen by more and more people in a rather pathetic light.

For those who are not blind to the costs for our consumer heaven things look very, very different. If you honestly consider the life of a young girl slaving in a third world factory to make a brand name tennis shoe and the life of the sports star marketing it to the masses to each have the same claim to clean air, water and food, then everything gets a little bit topsy-turvy.

All people are caught up in the maelstrom of changes involved in this long descent into the post-industrial age. However, this audience is self-selected as one that is awake to the bigger picture. The ecological analysis of the human predicament focuses on but one set of the parameters that could be used to track the ongoing story. Geopolitics and economics are equally telling the same tale. The sociological documentation of the breakdown of strong social bonds is another as it finds us bowling alone, isolated in our ear-bud techno self-stimulation. Let us wish all these researchers and concerned fellow passengers on this wild ride all the best. Those fields are closer to the faster cycles of society’s dynamics where fashion, memes, and fads rise and fall more kinetically than do ecological changes.

By being drawn to contemplate ecology our crowd has hit on a more long term fashioner of our fate. The relationship between any civilization and its sources and sinks is one that evolves slowly, yet with a power far and away more pervasive than anything within our popular cultures. Those receptive to the message that there are limits to growth obtain an analytic tool of unprecedented precision. The analysis shows clearly that it is very probable that humanity is in a state of overshoot being temporarily sustained by using phantom acreage, a circumstance destined to lead to a bottleneck event of one degree or another.

This is the important point. Changes will reset the unsustainable. It is an open question how severe the suffering accompanying these changes will need to be. Many of the parameters that will shape this aspect of our long descent are being determined by the choices we are making now. If we assume our species has millions of years still ahead of it, then there is no question but that we will eventually be reshaped into social and cultural forms that embody a more sustainable balance between our lifestyles and the constraints of our environments. The relevant questions are around how long will we continue to countenance the production of useless trinkets destined for our landfills and oceans?

This is where the practice of contemplation and the accompanying lifestyles and value changes it produces gains its gravitas. Each one of us in this community of shared interest has a life that is right now rippling across many others. Just as my words on this site have rippled across a year of time and across the continents so your words, and more importantly your actions, set off chains of causes and effects. The ecological crisis can seem so big and we so small yet what we are talking about here is something that only individuals can do. It is the creation of alternative spaces in which we can nurture our vision of a world that works for everyone without sacrificing our children’s futures to obtain it. It is the creation of a consciousness in which alternative values are allowed to inspire visions of futures we find worth working for. Working hard for.

This community does not see the existing rewards being offered by the larger society to be worth the high costs involved in their production. There is too much injustice, greed, and selfishness encouraged by the neoliberal hyper-capitalism of the current batch of royalty. The long term detriment to the air, water and soil is too high a price to pay for the tinsel of planned obsolescence and the shoddy workmanship of the lowest bidder.

There is one more reason I wanted to mention that this is the one year anniversary of this blog project. Now I could be all wet here but a year ago it struck me very deeply that it would be about this time that the wheels of the global systems would really start to fall off the bus, as it were. I thought about how it might be possible to make a public statement that such things were predictable, in fact inevitable given the trajectories of the limits to growth studies and the dearth of choices being offered by the powers that be. Starting a blog around the August, September, October period one year previous seemed as good a way as any to register my little insight.

We have been talking about preparing for a social reality in industrial countries that includes a whole lot more suffering in the near future. Those reconfigurations of social relations that bring additional suffering are already well underway; witness the shrinking middle classes or the events in Greece. Still, even though we are involved in a process that may take centuries to complete it is also true the collapse of fossils fueled industrial civilization is already well underway and the long descent includes times when wrenching disruptions to business as usual break out. I think we are very close to one of those times.

Now the future does not come with a flashing neon sign indicating ‘Look, this is collapse!’ In fact it comes in on quiet cats paws for most people, most of the time. Or as it was once said, it’s just one damn thing after another. This does not mean we cannot divine anything from the signs of the times, just that all such thoughts are even more provisional than the rest of our conceptual forecasts.

Narrowing our sites to no more than the profits and losses we will see in the next fiscal quarter our societies are being blindsided by a host of issues that require longer term thinking. As the funny money in the global economy strains the trust relationships of finance, the markets become structurally unsound. At the same time they are whiplashed by the new normal of post peak-oil price gyrations, where try as they might they cannot keep the sweet spot between too high and too low to keep business as usual proceeding on track. American politics has become unrecognizable at a time when the experiment of the European Union is being shown as just another empire where the center drains the resources of its peripheral countries. The fundamentalism in the oil producing part of the world is growing daily, seemingly unstoppable in its rush to return to the ways and means of the Middle Ages. Migration is becoming an issue in countries the world over as desperate people seek relief and a chance for more humane prospects. All together these look like rather powerful signals on the sea of worldly news.

Meanwhile, in the background, the ecological consequences of our collective behavior continue to move forward relentlessly. As the summer season wraps up in the northern hemisphere the impacts of global warming have again outpaced our modeling.

We are graduating to the next stage on our journey through the long descent.

I offer a toast to each of you graduates; thank you for the courage to face unpleasant truth and the willingness to do something about it, may your compassion be a light in darkness and your wisdom a refuge from the storm.