“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.

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 ethics class or the Sunday faith that becomes Monday’s “it’s-only-business” dismissal of kindness where and when it really counts. 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.

The second form of happiness which 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 with serotonin 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.


I think this is the question of our time.

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? Can it bring a tear to your eye?

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 nothing more than the primitive stepchild 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 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.

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. Such is the power of choice but it is all too 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. When we are stuck in a rut it may seem changing our habitual responses is impossible yet human experience assure us it is not. In the next moment a shocking degree of freedom is available.

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. Reality is most 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 felt knowing, a sense. It’s knowing is immediate. At its ultimate it is what we dimly perceive as spiritual omniscience.

This isn’t owned by anyone, but consciousness can participate in it. The saints are said to be awake to the full profundity of being human. In the East this awaken state is said to be one of blissful compassion, Bodhichitta in Sanskrit. In the West it is characterized as a perception of the truth found in the full depths of charity, love elevated to the divine. 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 or ecstasy. 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, or in Western terms, the unconditional love of agape.

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 contemplative tradition again 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.

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, the flame of the Spirit alive in the Sacred Heart. It is seen in the depth of wondrous mystery reflected in one another’s eyes. . .


“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. In Christianity the mercy of divinity, forgiveness, offered by Christ on the cross is also said to be all inclusive, shutting no-one out under any circumstances. These aspirations 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 else within our psyche. This is an element of our makeup quite capable of sweeping us away with its intensity. The same purity that makes the experience of compassion and love feel so fundamental to our very being is accompanied by the hope that the loved one will enjoy a true and 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 contemplation starts with the enemies or if a visualization is involved you place them close by, in front of oneself and one’s loved ones. Who could benefit more from the healing these emotions of love offer? 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. They are an inescapable wisdom born from 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 tragic and often 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 blind fundamentalism 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 most beautiful 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 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 anyone on a spiritual path 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. We learn to appreciate a holy indifference. 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 saintly 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.

Meanness Training

One of the roots of empathy is our ability to imagine what it is like to be another. Stories take advantage of our ability to identify with a character to make us care about what happens as the plot unfolds. The reader or listener ‘sees’ the tale with the eye of the imagination. In theater the characters are presented ready-formed but still the imagination is needed to translate the theatrical artifacts of curtains, stage exits and entrances, costumes and makeup into an emotionally compelling drama. With the advent of movies the first audiences had to be taught how to interpret them as well; their language of cuts, close-ups, and POV shots was found to be just disconcerting until our imaginations got the hang of it. In all these cases the meaning of the story affects us for a number of reasons but most critically it is by identifying with the protagonist we are able to make an emotional investment in the outcomes of the plot.

This identification is taken to another level in video games. Now the audience for the story is to some degree in control of the protagonist; the illusion of the double-self, the as-if self is complete. Video games leverage this skill for imaginatively identifying with another to explicitly place your character within the stories they tell.

School shootings in the US 1990-Oct 2015

Deaths in school shootings in the US 1990-Oct 2015

When acts of violence tear through our schools we are brought up short in our feeble attempts to understand. Immediately the vested interests are feeding off the tragedy as if the issue of gun control were the only one relevant to the conversation we as a society should be having as our children begin to routinely act out video game scenarios in our schools.

Pretending it is just an issue of gun control regulations also provides a sufficiently abstract rationalization that most of our conversations, collectively and individually, can steer clear of the full emotional impact the horrors the specific events evokes. Where are the tears, fears, rage? These emotions are felt but unacknowledged fully, even to ourselves. A few among us of course will open that door and follow the trail to study the issues in depth and work towards reversing the dismal trend of such events occurring with increasing frequency. Their work can inform us as we struggle to formulate a compassionate response.

Setting aside the issue of gun control entirely, how might we proceed?

Understanding will grow if we are able to recognize which causes and conditions of the young person’s life contributed substantially to this particular behavioral result. What social and cultural milieu are these young people experiencing day to day? We need to understand the human ecology involved if we are going to get beyond sound bite level analysis. In this case we are not interested in an ecological food web or population numbers but want to look into the pain-hate-rage systems. Something somewhere acted in the role of nurturing the desire to commit the violence all through the planning stages and something somewhere acted as the trigger that caused the perpetrator to choose the particular time and place they did. These acts of violence do not just drop out of the sky; our police investigations inevitably uncover particular causes and conditions.

As caring human beings, concerned fathers and mothers and as adult citizens of a democracy what can we learn from the wealth of detail these police investigations have gathered? Among the particulars that embody the tragic reality of the events, are their any patterns?

It turns out there are. Though it is the nature of such things to always be able to find a few exceptions to whatever common features arise, that is just a reflection of the complexity of human behavior. If we find that eight out of ten perpetrators shared a fascination with violent video games we are justified in giving that fact some weight. To a first approximation that is in fact what we find. This should surprise no-one; the clothes worn, the weapons chosen, and details in the plans are coming right out of video game personas and plots. Columbine, the dark standard of such events in the public conversation, presents us with events that resemble nothing so much as a team mission in countless first person shooters.

That these crimes are video game constructs brought to life is so obvious it very often goes without saying. The armed services have long known that such games are effective killer trainers. The education of the person playing volumes of hours will imprint itself on their nervous system. The hand-eye coordination becomes trained (among the killers at times to mastery levels) in a social context of trash talk while executing explicit head shots in stories that often use drugs, prostitution and torture as plot devices. This is very significant human programming.

That certain young men and boys find these entertainments as enjoyable as they do is a testament to the effectiveness by which game designers have honed their craft. Arguably the neural mechanic that makes all this work is a hijacking of the fight or flight chemical systems. The ancient survival systems are invoked by presenting an environment of non-stop threats made hyper-realistic with the slo-mo head shot and all the rest of the graphic realism the art form strives for.

There are other details about how the human nervous system reacts when it encounters these games worth examining. Like most things there is some good mixed with some bad. Attention is drawn into the here and now by the hyper-threat level which provides some relief from the planning and ruminating cognitions of everyday consciousness. The necessary sub-second response time bypasses the more leisurely thinking circuits, greatly simplifying the cognitive burden of the moment in favor of a more visceral response to the environmental clues. Finally the immediate ‘positive’ hit to the reward system with each successful kill keeps a stream of pleasure causing nerochemicals going. To frame the overall experience each game offers some device for tracking experience points, medals earned, number of kills and other minutiae of the rewards earned as we would expect from our understanding of the role of the reward and status emotional system.

Mixing fight or flight with reward and status provides the player with the whole smorgasbord of emotional systems to tickle and prod except the soothing, contentment ones. After a successful mission no-one basks in the arms of a loved one, grows a garden behind a picket fence or in any way lives ‘happily ever after’. Typically the next mission is queuing up before the adrenaline drenching of the previous one has completely dissipated. Watching a person playing you will often see very little emotion being expressed as they sit twitching the controller with that dreamy, entranced video game stare, but inside ancient passions are getting one heck of a workout. At some level the brain no longer makes distinctions between physically caused and virtually caused inputs. Combine this with our ability to identify with a character on the screen, which now has an enemy gun pointed at it, and we are off to the races.

All these elements working together have propelled the video game industry to becoming the largest grossing entertainment medium in the history of history. These first person shooters are the biggest sellers in that industry – by far. There are consequently powerful interests threatened by this turn of events, this new dark sociology of criminal youth. We need to bear this in mind as we do our own research into the issues.

On the other hand we need to be careful not to jump to overly simplified conclusions. Correlation is not causation. As I tried to show when describing the neural responses to gaming there are real benefits for many of the participants in what is ultimately our socially sanctioned, safe expression of the fight or flight systems of our generation of young men; the population that have carried out all the wars of history. Give me video simulation over real war any day. It is important not to let the horror of the crimes we are discussing obscure our sense of balance and proportion. Some people are choosing to play and can set it aside with ease when other parts of life call for their attention. Others have some degree of an addictive need and among them only a very few will develop their persona around the killer-hero these games depict.

Looking to empathize with our youth we ask ourselves what is it like to be them? One slice of their lives is the video game entertainments they choose to indulge in after school and on weekends. Friends meet online to team up or they join packs of strangers and as a tribe go looking for trouble. This is youth peer bonding as gang-banger model or more generously, as warrior model.

Note that this protagonist is a hero or anti-hero as the case may be, who solves issues by violence. It is a role that says it is ok to bully other people, ok for some people to be victims. It is a persona that sees itself as a violent person. Spending inordinate amounts of time with such ‘people’ as most everyone does since they also populate our TV and movie screens, is it any surprise at all that our society is becoming more coarse, crude, mean?

Because the crimes have such affinity with the action depicted in video games I submit those games as primary evidence people of goodwill should struggle with. Comprehending the role the ultra-violent computer and console games do and should play in our societies, while complex, is unavoidable. It is however, only one piece of evidence.

When a young person sits a down to play, what characterizes the environment he came from? What, we might ask, are the types of causes and conditions in their school days? Here again we find that violence, ranging from vicious bullying to assaults, are a defining feature of youth culture for many. This is one of the items we will pick up next week.