Heartless

“In the anatomy of violence, the heart is a central organ orchestrating the tendency to antisocial and violent behavior.”
Adrian Raine, The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime

 

Let’s start with studies of aggressive behavior in animals.

In Physiology & Behavior 52, 33-36 is a paper titled Long-term heart rate responses to social stress in wild European rabbits: predominate effect of rank position. In Folia Primatologica 20, 265-73 we find Heart rate (radiotelemetric registration) in macaques and baboons according to dominate-submissive rank in group. The Journal of Autonomic Nervous System also gets in the act in Suppl., 657-70 with Vegetative and somatic compounds of tree shrews’ behavior. What are all these papers finding? As Adrian Raine, who collected all those references put it, “Rabbits who are aggressive and dominant indeed have lower resting heart rates than subordinate, non-aggressive rabbits.” Lower resting heart rate, it turns out, is the second strongest indicator of “someone becoming antisocial and violent.”

Adrian participated in a meta-analysis of forty publications dealing with the heart rate-antisocial relationship in child and adolescent samples. They involved a total of 5,868 children. The correlation that antisocial kids have lower heart rate was .22 or about five percent of the differences. This is a big deal in medical science where for comparison the correlation between smoking and lung cancer is .08 or taking aspirin to reduce the chance of heart attack is .02.

Why?

If you or I were brought into a police interrogation and accused of a serious crime and answered all their probing questions with lies, our hearts would race and we would sweat profusely. Yet this is just the response that is lacking in many of those we call hardened criminals. These physiological reactions are controlled by the autonomic nervous system which consists of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. In a previous post we looked at these systems, in particular how little modern culture values the parasympathetic system which allows us to feel relaxed, secure and at ease with well-being. This tiny percentage of individuals we are considering here seem to be at ease, yet in circumstances in which such a response strikes us as alien.

Heart rate variability in connection with our breathing is controlled by the vagus nerve which has been found to also play a central role in how we relate to one another. It “links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions.” It seems almost too simple to be true but “Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior.” The vagal tone is measured by higher variability in heart rates. Well-toned it lowers risk of heart disease. The nerve also seems to be related to glucose production, our immune system, and even to the production of oxytocin. Please read more in the Time’s ‘The Biology of Kindness: How it Makes Us Happier and Healthier.

Regardless of how insane specific actions in these violent crimes might be, we cannot deny that the perpetrators are driven by human needs not wholly foreign to ourselves. As much as we might want to cast such people into the role of wholly other, they are members of our species. They are not monsters from some supernatural plane – though it is quite possible their biology, and their experience of consciousness that arises from it, are very different than what you or I experience. (The poverty of our language and conceptual frameworks for discussing altered states of consciousness does not do us any favors here.)

One of those biological differences concerns the heart as mentioned. When we are confronted with the details of these crimes the perpetrators seem heartless to us, as if they lacked a basic element of empathy. Studies have shown that this intuitive response is not that far from the mark. It turns out that there are two predictive indicators that a person might grow up to become a psychopath. The first was mentioned last week; they come from childhoods spent institutionalized or in broken and abusive homes. The second is that they have a slower heart rate.

That there is this correlation with a slower heart rate has been known to researchers for quite a while. In spite of this data there is still no general agreement on why this particular detail is involved. Contemplatives who have spent time working with the heart center of the body as it is experienced in meditation will not be surprised. It is a difficult work, an illustration of which will close this week’s essay. First it might be profitable to review the scientific speculations on why a slower heart rate might be so strongly correlated to psychopathology.

One explanation points to a lack of fear in such individuals. Transfer our example of the police interrogation to a bomb disposal context, and the soldier with the steady hand controlled by a steady heart beat has just the fearlessness you need. Another explanation points out the importance of another finding, that children with lower heart rates are less empathetic. It is easier to punch a human face if you don’t really feel within yourself what it is like to be hit. Another school of thought suggests the low arousal state of lowered heart rate is very unpleasant so people react by seeking high arousal stimulation. One detail from this set of studies is particularly interesting in light of the previous comments about the effect of media violence on children. Lower heart rate kids tend to choose to watch more violent material, that which is showing more intense anger, than those with higher resting heart rates.

Buddhist masters teach that the less self-satisfied we are, the less complete within ourselves, the more we will cling desperately to items and events in this world, needing them to be just the way we want them to be. Our happiness project is serious, important and vital – eee gad, our very existence is at stake. On the other hand, if we are fundamentally ok with our simple innate goodness and the innate goodness of the cosmic container in which we exist, all that is undone. There is no possibility of any particular set of causes and conditions ever really being an identity-threatening reality in any ultimate sense. By identifying more with the beginningless awareness of the whole, you escape the delusion of an isolated and assaulted self. Living this colorful life with a light touch is possible, if we are not slave to a sense that our very existence is at stake with every sling and arrow of outrageous fortune. We have never really had the type of existence we are afraid to lose.

There are two thoughts that keep reoccurring to me when I contemplate the people that do the types of dark deeds we have been discussing these last few weeks. Each provides a bridge, however shaky, from self-righteous rage towards a more productive attitude that seeks to relieve suffering. The first is that their lives are not that unlike my own 99.9% of the time. The other is that they are cut from the same biological cloth as I am; they come from the same warp and woof of deep time processes unfolding in the here and now.

Have you ever done something you regret? When the lives of perpetrators of violent crimes are examined somewhere close to 99.9% of them are filled with actions not all that dissimilar to those that fill your days. They cooperate on roads while driving like everyone else and wait in lines just like the rest of us shoppers and all the rest of it. This is why so many neighbors comment that the killer was just a “nice boy next door.” It is just a few fateful moments that separate their paths so irreversibly from our own. That they might pay with years in prison for actions of a few moments should cause us all to take humble inventory of our capacities.

From this humble position I invite you to share a Buddhist practice of Tonglen with me. One epistemology of the Buddha means “a loving friend, even to a stranger.” Tonglen practice embodies that very directly. Though I will talk about its simple technique the power of the practice is all about the real emotional connections we are able to generate, not how well executed the technique might be. It is not generally considered magical, though it does not deny we are all connected at a heart level. It establishes the psychological truth that when we are able to face the darkness and sit with it, accepting that suffering is in fact painful, we simultaneously acknowledge the dignity of the people who are going through these ordeals. It matures our character by stewing in the facts of life.

Sharing their pain for a moment, however little or much we might, we become more “real.” We moderns, isolated as we are from encounters with actual death and blood, have a tendency to make light of suffering, pretending it is the proper subject for spoof and entertainment. All that fake bravado is just so much whistling past the graveyard. To do tonglen well we need all the courage we have to sit honestly with our own fear of being hurt in order to extend the wish or the aspiration that the suffering of others might be lessened.

We are going to extend thoughts of loving-kindness and compassion to all the people involved in a school shooting incident. Though the news cycle has moved on the people involved in the shooting which occurred when we started talking about these things are still very much struggling and in pain.

To perform tonglen we breathe in the pain and hurt on which we are concentrating and breathe out the wish that those who are suffering will be comforted. To start, first recall the good things of life, simple everyday things that express shared love and concern until an emotion of calm spaciousness and warmth fills our heart region. Now we are able to begin drawing darkness into it to see it transformed into blessings. Tradition teaches it is best to start with the suffering of oneself or closest friends or loved ones; breathe in whatever suffering they might be experiencing in their lives, breathe out a wish that they might be happy and at ease. When that is comfortable, shift to focus on people you have a more neutral relationship with; work mates or general acquaintances. They too are just like you, wanting to avoid suffering and to experience happiness. Let the breath ride the emotions and the emotions ride the breath. Finally turn your attention to the strangers involved in the dark incident we are contemplating. Take plenty of time, be gentle, there is no rush, no right and wrong way to do this if the intention is sincere. Be with how much it aches to admit how deeply you really wish it had not happened. Allow sensing how difficult it is that there is not a quick fix to the trauma experienced and that these lives will be forever molded by it.

Aspire that by your working hard on being a sensitive individual, their interpersonal relationships will include the care and nourishment they will need to slowly work their way back into the possibility of having happy moments in life again. Include the families of the victims; include the families of the perpetrators.

End by letting all the focus go and simply breathe, be a rock on the planet, a lump grounded in earth like an enormous mountain. Rest like that a while. End by dedicating the merit, getting up and going forth looking for opportunities to share kindness and compassion throughout your day.

Buddhist tradition teaches that anytime a spiritual practice is undertaken whatever merit it might have accrued should be given away, dedicated to the highest ideal of which we are capable of imagining. This verse from Nagarjuna is often used:

“By this merit may all sentient beings perfect the accumulations of merit and wisdom
and achieve thereby the two genuine kayas arising from merit and wisdom.”

The Anatomy of Violence

“It don’t take anyone too smart to look at three generations of outlaws and see there is a link of some kind, there is a pattern… I don’t think there can be any doubt in anyone’s mind that he [Jeffrey Landrigan] was fulfilling his destiny… I believe that when he was conceived, what I was, he became…  The last time I saw him he was a baby in a bed, and underneath his mattress I had two .38 pistols and Demerol; that’s what he was sleeping on.”
Darrel Hill while on death row discussing his son Jeffrey Landrigan who was also on death row, and his father who had been shot dead by police. From 60 Minutes: Murder Gene: Man on Death Row Bases Appeal on the Belief That His Criminal Tendencies Are Inherited (2001)

 

It’s time to take stock of where we have been and why we are dwelling on these dark subjects at all. I have no blindingly new insight into violence to share. I am just a student hoping that by sharing my thoughts and reactions your own path might be enriched. This contemplative lifestyle swims so hard against the mainstream in Walmart-land I think we need to offer one another as much support as we can muster.

It is important not to lose sight of the power these contemplative paths include. Meditation is not a ticket to more health, wealth and status but to something much more raw and immediate. Our commitment to befriending our mind is effective when it is total and when it is total there is nothing about the mind we fear to face. Even monsters.

The subject of why school shootings have become a common feature of American life is being investigated so that the compassion we bring to the subject might be informed. Compassion is strengthened when our understanding of an aspect of suffering grows within us. Our reactions naturally become more caring and compassionate the more we understand, for in the end all sentient beings are just Iike us – waking to find themselves in an existence not of their choosing and destined to die.

Compassion seeks to relive suffering so it encourages us to look clear eyed at the darker aspects of life that are the sources of suffering. Idiot compassion does no one any good. We are looking for precision in our knowledge so we might be as effective as possible when handling this all important subject of dark children. Perhaps one day you will be called on to comfort someone grieving their loss from such a tragedy, or perhaps you will be drawn into conversations with others about these things. Maybe the nuances we are exploring will aid in those moments.

Though these are ways we become directly involved with the tragic events of school shootings it is not the only way people participate in the ripples such violent acts create throughout our societies. How you think and feel when considering the subject will also influence the environment around you. How you think about this dark subject will contribute to the attitudes you bring towards numerous aspects of modern life, influencing things, shall we say, semi-consciously? The power of awareness is such that we cannot help but contribute to how the society we are in experiences such things.

In an earlier post mention was made of the role of the molecule oxytocin in the formation of the mother and child bond and how some people react to such knowledge very negatively. That there are chemical triggers involved in this form of love reduces us to no more than automatons in their view, puppets of the evolutionary selection pressures that formed us right down to our most intimate subjectivity. I don’t think this view is necessarily wrong so much as it is incomplete, basically a really strange way to look at things. If love were not to have any embodiment in our biochemical makeup, if it were completely transcendent, an ethereal Platonic thought involving no neurotransmitters – that would somehow make that love more real? “As if because love is as real as chemicals it is somehow less real in fact.”

We need to look carefully at this Cartesian inheritance towards our biochemical makeup if we are ever going to make heads or tails out of the ecstasies and degradations of the human being. This fear of a pervasive nihilism hiding in our bright sided consumer society is one we will pick up by and by. The puppets and the cosmic horror are not only for Halloween for those of us carrying on traditions that include numerous adepts meditating in cremation grounds. But that is for another time, the point now is best stated bluntly: love is not the only emotion carrying chemical signatures, violent aggression does as well.

Fear of overly simplistic interpretations of a gene for criminality being used by society’s law courts cautions us to be careful with discussions of the biological basis of crime. An ugly history of racism and eugenics equally urge caution when discussing the physiological markers that indicate a predisposition for committing violent crimes. That there are such markers is accepted by most researchers involved with The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime as the title of Adrian Raine’s book on the subject so aptly states. Still, the science the book covers is controversial.

Just mentioning the subject seems to harken back to a more superstitious age when bumps on the skull were considered sure indicators of criminal proclivities. Needless to say the findings of modern biochemistry and fMRI brain scans studies are considerably better founded on evidence than phrenology. The very existence of somatic markers also calls into question to what extent people can be justly held accountable for their actions. The concepts of choice and freewill on which our justice systems are philosophically composed become much more nuanced if we admit various diseases and malfunctions of the brain are at times involved with violent criminal acts.

All of which leaves us unsure as a society just how we might need to integrate the findings of neuroscience into the criminal justice system, not to mention social services, education, and many of the other institutions dealing with at risk children and offending adults.

Evolutionary development – Evo Devo – studies how the expressions of genes are orchestrated by environmental queues. It has found that some genes are surprisingly conserved across many different species and that the variation between species at the level of genes themselves is much less than we had initially anticipated. What does vary enormously is the way in which genes are expressed: which ones come into play when. This regulation of gene expression in turn is regulated by, at least in part, the environment in which development is occurring. Recall that, particularly among mammals, brain development continues for years after the child is born. Throughout this time the environment remains capable of influencing these genetic expressions. For this reason it should come as no surprise to learn that one of the strongest shared characteristics of psychopaths is that they come from childhoods spent institutionalized or from broken and abusive homes. Lacking a stable, loving, parent-like relationship causes human brain development to go haywire just as it does among the primates Harlow studied.

Adrian Raine makes the point, “From the genetic makeup of the brain it is only a brief step to the chemistry of violence.” Genes code for the brain’s neurotransmitters, the chemical currency of our cognition, emotions and behaviors. Low levels of Serotonin, for example, have the effect of weakening the role of the frontal cortex, an area of the brain important in regulating aggression. The limbic system and the amygdala in particular are where the fear and aggression circuits are sourced. In contrast the frontal cortex areas are related to cognitive thought. Though the triune brain theory is overly simple it does provide a workable first approximation to the dynamics here being described.

Scans-of-a-normal-brain-l-009On the left is the normal brain. Note the red area towards the top which indicates the activity of the prefrontal cortex. The brain on the right is from convicted murderer Antonio Bustamante. A jury presented with these brain scans chose not to seek the death penalty in this case.

Adrian asks, “Why should poor prefrontal functioning predispose one to violence?” He provides five reasons.

  • Emotional level – without strong prefrontal cortex signals there is a loss of control over the more primitive parts of the brain.
  • Behavioral level – damage to the prefrontal cortex results in “risk-taking, irresponsibility and rule-breaking”, behavioral changes conductive to violence.
  • Personality level – damage to the prefrontal cortex results in “impulsivity, loss of self-control, and an inability to modify and inhibit behavior appropriately.”
  • Social level – damage results in “immaturity, lack of tact, and poor social judgement” all of which leads to “poorer ability to formulate nonaggressive solutions to fractious social encounters.”
  • Cognitive level – damage results in a “loss of intellectual flexibility and poorer problem solving skills” which can “later result in school failure” and a criminal way of life.

This illustrates that the complex casual pathway from gene expression of neurotransmitter production influencing prefrontal cortex functioning has numerous avenues by which an individual might become predisposed towards acts of violence. Even this quick sketch of the variables involved should be sufficient to put paid to any idea that we will ever find a simple ’cause of violence.’ For every risk factor research has identified there are numerous counterfactuals, numerous individuals with lower Serotonin levels, to stay with our current example, which never have the rest of the causes and conditions come together that are necessary for an act of violence to occur.

That said, should we assume fMRI scans showing lowered prefrontal cortex activity is a technological net in which we might catch all these killers? No, as it turns out, even at this level of detail the story is more complex. In violence research a distinction is made between proactive and reactive aggression, what we might recognize as the difference between cold-blooded and hot-blooded crimes. The reactive aggression comes from individuals with the weakened prefrontal cortex functioning we have been examining. In reacting to provocations these people can lose their cool and their bubbling limbic system boils over. “When presented with aggressive stimuli their brains over respond at an emotional level and under respond at a cognitive control level” as Adrian puts it when discussing spouse-abusers.

The proactive killers in contrast use violence as a strategy to get what they want in life. They carefully plan their actions, a difference we recognize legally as premeditated murder as opposed to manslaughter. Occasionally these people are so meticulous they avoid capture for long periods of time, as some of our most notorious serial killers have. These individuals do not show lower levels of prefrontal cortex activity when scanned.

Interestingly, tentative research indicates that the level of stimulation in the limbic system of both proactive and reactive aggression prone individuals’ show elevated activity compared to the brain scans of ‘normal’ individuals who are acting as the experimental controls. It is as if the bubbling caldron of fear and fight circuits are amped up in people with aggression problems. Such problems may be more pervasive than they seem even in our violence saturated culture. We should remind ourselves that aggression can also be turned inward and that we will never know how many “accidents” include some element of the suicidal.

The next time you have the chance to have a meaningful conversation with another human being take a moment to notice the depth of mind behind the eyes. Appreciate the complexity of the mystery that makes that moment possible. Not one person remains unscathed by these inner battles, and while perhaps only a few suffer the biological imbalances that make such states habitual, we all share the same deep-time roots of our genetic inheritances.

Compassion is easier as understanding grows.

I mentioned that one of the main developmental factors predictive of psychopathology was a childhood institutionalized or spent in broken and abusive homes. We will take up the surprising and unexpected second factor next week.

Monsters

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace of a new dark age.”
H.P. Lovecraft, first paragraph of The Call of Cthulhu

 

It is frightening when a writer encounters their subject synchronistically responding to events in the world at large. I had already planned to move our discussion of a compassionate encounter with school violence towards monsters. The sword wielding, silent, black-masked school killer who played “horrible, Halloween-type” music is a dark denizen stepping over the threshold made to order; a terrifyingly clear example of the type.

Society labels these killers’ monsters, what might we learn by taking this folk wisdom seriously? Carl Jung observed, “Possession, though old-fashion, has by no means become obsolete; only the name has changed. Formerly they spoke of ‘evil spirits,’ now we call them ‘neurosis’ or ‘unconscious complexes.’ …man himself has taken over their role without knowing it and does the devilish work of destruction with far more effective tools than the spirits did. In the olden day’s men were brutal, now they are dehumanized and possessed to a degree that even the blackest Middle Ages did not know.”

Many have taken Jungian thought to task for such statements yet regardless of one’s position on such things it is hard to deny that our monsters are still with us. David Skal makes the point in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror that by the number of books sold and dollars made Stephen King is the most popular storyteller in the history of the world. Bit surprising that, yes? When Christopher Booker fished around for the right way to start his survey of Western literature throughout history,The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, he chose to open with ‘Overcoming the Monster’ as the first chapter. There is something very central to how we understand the world in these tales.

We have already expanded our focus from the risk factors specific to the young killers to study killing as it is understood by modern militaries, the violence professionals. Today’s subject is not wholly unrelated. According to The Monster Show Vietnam experiences found their way to the silver screen. War photographer turned makeup artist, Tom Savini, is quoted as saying “that much of my work for Dawn of the Dead was like a series of portraits of what I had seen for real in Vietnam. Perhaps that was one way of working out the experience.” (Echoes of karma are heard in the wings as society’s actions come home to roost.) The author goes on to note another correspondence, “Horror films of the seventies and eighties began exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome: startle reactions, paranoia, endless scenes of guerrilla-like stalking, and, like traumatic flashbacks, endlessly repeated images of nightmare assaults on the human body, especially its sudden and explosive destruction.”

We are trying to get closer to the emotions involved in our collective society that confront our most existential fears. Looking for the signature, as it were, of the particular anger and rage we engender. We want to understand the suffering involved as a first step towards a skillfully compassionate response. Sometimes the most compassionate response to a monster is to embrace it. It is hard work to integrate the shadow and refuse to dehumanize the other, to see the human in the face of the enemy as we looked at in last week’s post. Other times the most compassionate act is to put the monster down.

The un-killable razor-handed Jason of Friday the 13th torture porn is unlike Dracula or Wolfman, each of which eventually meet their demise, however difficult it might have been to bring it about. The monsters on our screens today differ from what previous generations had been exposed to and not just in the categories of more realistic special effects and additional bucket loads of gore. The plots themselves and the protagonists and antagonists that populate them are expressing something new in the history of storytelling. With roots in arguably the Marquis de Sade the new ‘modern’ story is one in which the bad guy wins, innocence suffers, and no final accounting is given for acts of atrocity.

Silence of the Lambs was the third film ever to win the “big five” Oscars for producing, directing, acting and screenwriting, showing its resonance with the times. It is also a perfect example of this new ‘modern’ story. In it the bad guy gets caught but the greater monster is set free as Hannibal Lecter managed to outwit the forces of order which might have protected his young victims from his cannibalism. All the while he expresses a chilling degree of horror without mythical or supernatural trappings. Evil here is the deranged human mind.

The most powerfully shocking traumas human beings can suffer are those delivered at the hands of another human being. Knowing that there is a conscious hate that desires to see you suffer and die is profoundly traumatic. In On Combat Lt. Col. Grossman asks us to consider our different reactions between our home destroyed by a hurricane that leaves all our family in the hospital and our home invaded by a gang who burns down the house and injures our family members. In both scenarios the house is lost and our entire family ends up in the hospital, yet in one there is a rage that thirsts for justice that is wholly lacking in the other.

The sadistic human murderers of these ‘modern’ stories remove the distancing feature of supernaturalism which is why they are recognized as some of the most extreme embodiments of the horror genre: Saw, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs are representative examples. Remove the element of fiction and we are in the hell realm of snuff films. It should surprise no one that a country that chose to atavistically return to torturing prisoners of war should reflect upon itself in such dark mirrors.

We have come a long way from a Hobbit and a handful of men slaying Smaug the dragon or Professor Abraham Van Helsing pounding a stake through Dracula’s heart.

Of course most people prefer their monsters with the mythical elements in place, a sign of health of sorts. We have already spoken of how tragedy teaches the lessons of an ethical universe just as certainly as comedy does. Whichever way the storytellers twist their tale it can serve to nourish and educate us if the author is in touch with the underlying archetypal wholeness beyond the grasp of the ego. As careful observers of the flow of life through the generations, storytellers cannot help but be in touch with the great archetypal themes. They form the foundational functional relationships on which our self-consciousness is architected.

Though for a time it might have looked like sexy vampires were the dominate myth of our times I would suggest the zombies outpaced the bat by far. It is worth noting that both are creatures categorized as undead. Together they serve as the shadows of the Christian mass for a once Christian culture. The vampire drinks the blood of the living and the zombie eats the flesh, specifically preferring to eat the brain actually, of the living.

Tantric practitioners and other contemplatives will not be surprised to find flesh and blood at the heart of our monsters. The body is the ego’s phenomenological horror, destined as it is for sickness, old age and death; an unforgivable insult to our specialness. So we are at war instead of peace, in Samsara instead of Nirvana. Most esoteric systems eventually map their symbols back into the body. One way to maybe understand a bit why, short of direct experience, is to appreciate the role of the body as the root of our metaphors and our metaphors as the root of our cognitions as documented in such works as Body in Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason by Mark Johnson.

The undead – they experience life but are not really living. Do you think anyone in the overdeveloped world might feel that way as they go through the motions of working and shopping day after day? They experience life but are not really living… The unrelieved pressure to survive and get ahead in our consumer driven, industrial society stresses many of us to the point where the world becomes grey. We are afraid to fully feel so we protect ourselves by adopting a kind of narcotic numbness to the realities we encounter. The undead are popular as a mirror in which we see our existential situation.

The sexy vampire of Anne Rice’s novels or the Twilight series or the vampire who started it all, Dracula himself, all have a certain sophistication zombies lack. They have powers and plans, schemes and goals. It is as if the head had been cut off from the heart and now obsessively plots satisfaction of its hunger for blood in a vain attempt to once again know the warmth of human emotions.  Ego isolated in its tower, commanding its troops in the war of me against all is terrified, though it doesn’t want anyone else to know. The ego fears emotions – the depths of their reaches in ecstasies both light and dark sweep it away. To feel this deeply, to experience such an enormous capacity for pain, in a universe the ego fears may be meaningless, is the worst of curses.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula arguably captured the essence of the vampire monster when the protagonist defies God to strike him down. If you really exist God, the logic runs, I’m about to commit a horrendous crime so strike me down right now, right here where I stand! The vampire is a fitting culmination of our Faustian age. It has been almost one hundred years since the death camps of WWII, are we not still reeling from the silence of the heavens?

How many desperate acts of evil are just such misguided and backhanded ways of trying to force a revelation from the side of divinity? Like a spoilt child in a tantrum, mankind wakes up to the vastness of the universe, age of the earth, inexplicable cultural diversity over evolutionary time periods and the undeniable rise and fall of numerous civilizations and cries out in terror for the lost God of his ancestors. Buddhists teach there is emptiness in the center of the throne room. In Western terms we might say God will not be forced as the Tarot’s Tower and the book of Job teach.

The zombie on the other hand is just a shambling mindlessness driven by a hunger for flesh. Ouch. Can you not see how well this captures the dead-end of extreme consumerism? Our appetite for flesh grows ever more out of control as year after year our pornography and violent entertainments grow increasingly extreme. How do we react? Numbly shambling into the future. David Skal sees the same correlation commenting, “A razor edged social satire, Dawn of the Dead peopled a shopping mall with flesh eating zombies, an indelible image of consumerism gone mad.”

Consumer goods are fashioned out of the flesh of the earth: crude oil for our plastics and transportations to and from the factories, stores and landfills; rare earth metals for our endlessly distracting electronic gadgets; coal to fire our power plants; and wood to build our McMansions and provide the sawdust needed for the particleboard IKEA furniture to fill them.

EarthEatingThe final detail about the zombie as shadow mascot for consumerism I would like to mention concerns their preference for dining on brains. We have spent some posts looking at brains as the seat of self-awareness. The zombie seems to believe that sentiment expressed by the H.P. Lovecraft quote that started this post – that the sooner we can eat our way back to brainless unconsciousness the better!

Consumerism is basically the diminishment of meaningful human activity to the singularly important act of purchasing. The powers that be have every incentive to remove as viable options any and all human activity that is not dependent on buying and selling in the marketplace. This is why we are all Bowling Alone as the study of the disappearance of public spaces by Robert Putnam was entitled. This is why the productive home of just a few generations ago has become such a thing of the past. Gardens and canning and front porch conversations with neighbors, where is the profit in that?

What I see in all these things, the school shootings and the types of monsters populating our collective nightmares, is a stage of societal transformation. Awake to the possibility that we could thoroughly trash this planet in our greed, violence and ignorance and that the cosmos would just roll along with or without us has shaken our values to the core. The monsters that resonate with us in our stories and the monsters appearing in our societies are harbingers of the transformation.

At one point a feel good message about this transformation was all the rage as the New Age movement of crystals and light seemed to be leading mankind to its destiny. Peace was coming in the Age of Aquarius; our time of crisis would also be our time of waking up. The belief seemed to be that while the road may be bumpy we were well on our way to utopia at last. Today we recognize the philosophy of the enlightenment – progress through reason and science – lies tattered and torn at the heart of this New Age fantasy. It was really just the same old apocalyptic dressed up in secular drag.

As the transformation proceeds all around us it becomes more undeniably obvious that all is not going to be sweetness and light. As fossil fueled industrial society wraps up burning its second half of earth’s crude oil resources over the next century or two the smart money will not be placed on either utopia or its intellectual sister, the end of the world. We will also not go screaming with horror into a new dark age as Lovecraft warned. We will walk the path of collapsing complexities so skillfully illustrated in works as Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, Michael Greer’s The Long Descent and James Kunstler The Long Emergency.

Our monsters will accompany us along the way, as will our gods. Opportunities to turn our backs on consumerism will continue to abound. Maybe it’s time to sit again with our neighbors on the porch and have a good long neighborly conversation about just what kind of life we want for ourselves and our children. Contemplatives have learned by turning their eyes within that the glory and dignity of our species is never going to be found in a store. Gardeners the world over have learned no ease of access to food can substitute for the chance to actively participate in the fertility of the soil. I know it sounds too small and easy to suggest planting a seed and sitting can guide individuals wisely through these dark and challenging times, yet I believe they can. They offer a kind of monster protection.

While idling away our time on the front porches maybe we will start talking about what democracy looks like when corporations are not persons and money doesn’t equal votes. We just might be able to fashion some monster traps out of thoughts like that.

Killology

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation, and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, as unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different parts of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.”
Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis

 

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. We have been examining the causes and conditions involved when young people become mass murderers. The statistics characterizing home life, media saturation, and school pressures open our eyes to just how pervasive the major risk factors are in the lives of our young people. In spite of these historic pressures, the great majority of our young handle the stress well and display wonderful character. Even with war being the other major factor in our young people’s environment throughout this century, they are able to resist acting as monsters. How does that work, why does that happen?

Though killers grab the headlines I want to direct our attention to an often overlooked finding the studies of violence have uncovered. It is important for us to understand it is not easy for a human being to kill another human being at ranges close enough  to see the humanity and the suffering of the victim. James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Rambo and Indiana Jones remorselessly killing hundreds of men are part of a deceptive propaganda that glorifies war and violence by teaching that killing is easy. It is not.

That it is not easy to take the safety switch off a human being and get them to kill other human beings has been a problem for armies for centuries. U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall during WWII asked average soldiers what they did in battle. He and other military historians had access to the soldiers as they returned from the European theater on the long ship rides home. While memories were still fresh the soldiers told him the most unexpected thing.  He discovered that during an engagement with the enemy an average of only 15 to 20 of every hundred men “would take part with their weapons.” The findings were drawn from interviews with thousands of soldiers from more than four hundred infantry companies.

It is extremely easy to look to be shooting the enemy but aiming slightly higher and evidently this was rampant. Additionally from the soldiers own reports he learned that it was very common for some soldiers in a unit to play a supporting role for a few key shooters. They would restock their ammunition supplies, trade jammed guns, run messages, rescue colleagues and generally do all they could short of actually shooting at the enemy.

Modern armed forces took these findings very seriously and began a systematic redesign of how soldiers would be trained to kill. What they discovered is that there is a formidable psychological barrier that needs to be overcome in most people before they will ever have a good chance of actually being able to kill when the time comes. Think about this. In the real world human beings, with our deep roots in our social primate pasts, have an aversion to killing members of our own species up close and personal.

The modern army orchestrates an array of techniques to specifically take the safety catch off its soldiers. Boot camp’s drills are using operant conditioning to create the correct battle field responses ‘without having to think about it’ which is how our soldiers survive. Drill sergeants threats of immediate aggression provide an environment in which such reimprinting can successfully occur. “In the Vietnam era the drill sergeant communicated a glorification of killing and violence of an intensity never before seen. We did it intentionally. We did it calculatingly.” (Grossman 2009)

An infamous psychological experiment might shed light on the behavioral modification forces at play in such processes. A dog kept in a kennel with the floor wired up to deliver painful electrical shocks at unpredictable times and places first jumps out of the way when an electrical shock is administered. Over time as the dog learns that nothing it does lessens the schedule of the shocks or brings relief, a state of what is called learned helplessness sets in. The dog no longer tries to move away from the shocks, it just sits there taking it, whimpering.

However, if just once during the early stages when the dog moves away from the source of the shock it is allowed to break free from the kennel – it will never display learned helplessness. It does not matter how long the cruel experiment is carried on. After that experience that dog will not learn learned helplessness. The army recruit in boot camp is not wholly dissimilar, though the shocks are physical exhaustion, social humility, mental confusion and emotional turmoil instead of electrical and the freedoms earned run along the lines of a three day pass and eventually graduation.

Another technique implemented in training young recruits should make your blood run cold when you really understand it and then consider the popularity of first person shooter video games.  WWII recruits learned marksmanship firing at circular targets. After General Marshall’s research those were replaced with life-like silhouettes. The firing range was now populated not by abstract circles and squares but realistically human shaped and sized targets.

The book from which this military history is drawn is On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.He has spent his life studying violence as it actually happens in the real world and christened the new science killology. On Killing became a major resource at West Point, the FBI Academy and hundreds of police departments. He strives to set aside politics and even morality and just look at the evidence in detail around what happens when human beings kill one another.

He mentions other factors of the new training such as dehumanizing the enemy (gooks to rag-heads) and the importance of camaraderie forged in life threatening environments. He reports the estimated effectiveness of the infantry due to modern training technologies rose from 15 – 20 percent of soldiers actually shooting to kill the enemy in WWII to 70 – 85 percent in Vietnam. Lt. Col. Grossman goes on to explain that while it is relatively easy to train a human being to take the safety catch off, it is much harder to prepare people to deal with the emotional fallout that results. Now that so many more soldiers are actually participating in death up close and personal the incidents of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome are epidemic. We have learned it is much easier to teach a man to pull the trigger than it is to teach him how to live with the remorse.

There is a very important distinction between violence committed by young people on the battle field versus in a school. A soldier never commits an act of violence unless under orders, unless given the authority to do so. This rule is sacrosanct in the military. This is why the statistics show the incidents of violent crime committed by veterans is no higher, and may in fact be slightly lower, than by members of the society at large.

By whose authority are our children killing? The board members of Activision, Blizzard and Microsoft? The screenwriters, actors and producers in Hollywood? Perhaps in some way, to some small degree, the bad conscience of a society incapable of changing its behavior to leave the next generation a legacy less filled with “debris, desolation and filth”?

Armies have spent centuries perfecting the behavioral manipulation technologies that can mold young people into soldiers capable of defeating the enemy and returning home safely. Vast fortunes of countless kingdoms and nations have been spent over those centuries in both blood and silver. This human knowledge of killing has been purchased at a very dear price. From one perspective it reflects the horrors of hell yet from another stands as an astonishing witness to the basic empathetic nature of the human animal. “At close range the resistance to killing an opponent is tremendous. When one looks an opponent in the eye, and knows that he is young or old, scared or angry, it is not possible to deny that the individual about to be killed is much like oneself.” (Grossman 2009)

So this is what we learn from the study of killology. It should give us pause that the circumstances of our school shootings are such that the killers not only see their victims up close, but in many cases even knew them personally. The boundaries being crossed are unprecedented in the modern world. As was mentioned last week, this is something new.

To School, Perchance to Learn

Last week’s post, published on Wednesday morning as is the norm, included graphs summing the number of school shooting events and the number of victims in the United States. Within two days those graphs were already out of date; there were two more school shootings on Friday. The question of why our young people are killing each other is one contemplatives and all people of good-will need to wrestle with.

Last week’s post looked into video games as an enticing factor. Elsewhere in blog land Kunstler made the very perceptive point that much of this horror is a result of there being a serious lack of meaningful work in our country: take away a young man’s hope for recognition from a job well done, take away a young man’s hope to provide for his own family, take away a young man’s father and bosses as role models of impulse control and this is what you get. His post captured some of the magnitude of the problem we are considering here.

Notice that there is a lack of future at play here? Young people are not stupid. They are looking at the reality of the financial shenanigans that are eating the middle class, the corporate raider ethics of the business world and the dismal set of shabby products that make up the bulk of consumerism choices and draw the not unreasonable conclusion that a safe, fulfilling future is likely not in the cards for them. Isn’t this lack of a realistically wholesome future one of the central features of the dark enlightenment we have achieved by learning of the ecological crisis unfolding all around us? This lack of a viable, hopeful, and better future is the psychological burden of our age, an age of monsters born as the myth of progress dies.

I am interested in a compassionate response. In sticking with the theme of mindful ecology, specifically I am interested in what an individual response can be to the outbreaks of social madness. As mentioned last week these acts of madness do not just drop out of the sky, there are specific causes and conditions that nurture it. There are also specific causes and conditions that do not. Compassion is not milk-toast, feel-good, new age mumbo-jumbo. Compassion is first and foremost a willingness to stay with the personal suffering that knowledge of dark subjects entails and second it is a drive to find what realistic actions you can take to do your part in tipping the balance towards the light. That effective action could be one of body, speech or mind; it can be grandiose or minuscule and directly related to youth violence or related to some other aspect of the nightmare entirely. Pure intention is our work. We can trust it will organize the causes and conditions of each of our uniquely individual lives. Our aspiration remains: may I be of benefit to others.

It is important to have the courage to admit that these school shootings are something new. The introductory chapter of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill is entitled ‘It’s Not Normal’ and includes this timely reminder:

“We have deterred many violent crimes by putting thousands of armed police officers in our schools. But it seems that we have forgotten that it is not normal to put thousands of cops in our schools to stop our kids from killing each other. And it’s not normal for every kid in America to practice hunkering down, hiding under tables when their classmates come to kill them.”

So what else is new in the environments in which our youth are growing up? Statistics can be a good way to start to get a sketch of what those environments are now like if we take the time to really absorb what they mean. In Our Kitchen Table Conversation we looked at the statistics around sexual abuse. Here it bears pointing out just how corrosive a direct experience with sexual abuse can be, whether as the victim or when the victim is someone close. It corrodes trust in our cultural institutions since the perpetrators are almost never prosecuted and the powers that be have known how extensive the abuse is for many decades and yet choose to turn a blind eye. Abuse is an important thread. Mike Huckabee in Kids Who Kill mentions 90 percent of the violent teens have suffered some sort of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. He also mentions 80 percent of all juvenile offenders are from broken homes with 70 percent from single parent households.

In fact abuse makes the top of the list of “ten common things behind the making of a violent and murderous teen” in Phil Chalmers study Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer. The list:

  1. An abusive home life and bullying
  2. Violent entertainment and pornography
  3. Anger, depression, and suicide
  4. Drug and alcohol abuse
  5. Cults and gangs
  6. Easy access to and fascination with deadly weapons
  7. Peer pressure
  8. Poverty and criminal lifestyle
  9. Lack of spiritual guidance and appropriate discipline
  10. Mental illness and brain injuries

That suicide is on the list requires some clarification. Many of the mass murders have been committed by people choosing to commit suicide but hell-bent on taking other people down with them. Harvard University psychologist William Pollack has stated that by the time of the shootings 78 percent of the perpetrators were suicidal. The teen suicide rate is up 200 percent since 1960, a statistic that should chill our hearts. Add that children are the primary group suffering malnutrition and 32 percent are below the poverty line and it is not hard to see an environment in which cognitive and emotional developmental expressions can easily go haywire.

The pervasiveness and degree of viciousness in school bullying has recently been a subject of national conversation. It is important to recognize that what our youth are suffering is not only the old schoolyard bully of decades past and more innocent times. This is the reason it made it to the top of the list. Social media, to site just one of the new conditions, provides a means of taunting the victim 24 hours a day, non-stop. The abusive messages can come anytime in the day or night but rarely are they predictable. Random threat factors like this are known to wear on the nerves, multiplying their effect by requiring their victims to always be on their guard.

Serious assaults accompany the bullying. These are not like the schoolyard fights teachers would break up throughout the history of American schools. This is much more serious with the victims suffering hospitalizations, trauma, and suicides and sometimes picking up firearms and getting revenge.

In schools a lack of respect for teachers and staff is off the charts compared to the norm of just a few decades ago. I know at least one teacher who keeps a bullet proof vest in a cabinet in their classroom, not an inner city classroom I might add. I wonder how many other teachers do the same.

Where do our kids learn such viciousness? Kids have always been mean to one another but what was the gasoline poured on that fire that has led to this? These are the questions we should be asking. Oh, by the way, here is one more statistic. This one is about a show that was very popular among teens for a while, The Apprentice. It “contains eighty-five acts of verbal or relational aggression per hour.” (Grossman, DeGaetano 2014). Now of course some people think the “star” of that show would make a good American president. What a chump, ah, I mean trump of meanness over civility.

We need to consider what these shootings are doing to all our students, our children. How are our kids supposed to be able to study well? You know they are all darkly fascinated by what’s happening to their fellow schoolmates throughout this land. Who do we provide for them to talk to? Our over-worked, over-staffed, underfunded, underpaid teachers? Our kids can afford a movie ticket but not a half hour talk with a therapist or other caring adult. When we follow the money in this society we sure do uncover a screwy set of values.

Let’s consider the experience of a student in a school with a shooting. Contemplatives develop empathy by taking the time to imagine themselves into another’s experience. Does it seem strange to direct your imagination to work on what people involved in violent crimes like this experience, yet not seem strange to let strangers fill your imagination with images of the same on television?

This student is not one of the victims, contemplating the victim’s experience is beyond blog material. When a shooting at a school happens the traumas are compounded. Imagine it. First you hear the shots, then see people running, screaming. You are locked down in a classroom waiting for the firestorm to be over, which it is in a few minutes. You have no idea what the extent of the violence has been. Waiting. Maybe with others. Maybe alone.

Then the SWAT team clears the buildings. Now those not directly involved are all paraded out at gun point by camouflaged police – each student walking with their hands up like we’ve all seen in every TV show when the police catch the bad guy. What is this? We are all bad guys, all us young people? Oh, and every bag is searched by large men in bullet proof vests. You are now allowed to go and with the rest of your schoolmates stumble towards shocked, mourning crowds.

Crowds of mourners, parents, and police are there. Others are there as well. There is also the ambulance chasing media scrambling to get to the scene of the crime as quickly as possible to capture those ratings. Cameras and lights, interviews and makeup… The whole media circus will keep hanging around your town, invading privacy every chance they get until the last drop of blood has been squeezed from the event.

Your everyday world has been shattered: shattered by the hate in the act, the horror of the bloody results. You were mortally terrified during the time of not knowing just what was happening and then surrounded by military in your home environment – a very strange thing if you haven’t experienced it yet in the new U.S. of A. – paraded out publicly like a suspect and your private belongings invaded and then you were cut loose.

Mind you this is an exercise in empathy using imagination fed on photos and news footage I have seen. I think it captures a taste of the psychological experience of the young people involved. The reality of how such students are treated and helped by the first responders is typically compassionate, courageous and quite simply those rushing in to save, heal and protect are the real heroes of our day and age. We know what needs to be done tactically to minimize the probability of continued or escalated acts of violent killing. Hands in the air and searched bags are parts of those tactical necessities. Even counselors are made available for the students to help them process. Still, there it is, a dark turn of affairs to be putting thousands of our children through. Thousands is no exaggeration when estimating those who have been at schools where these mass killing events have happened. How many will suffer PTSD issues the rest of their lives from the trauma of bringing the battlefield to their schools?

And those in schools where no acts of such violence has occurred, do you think they wonder and worry terribly if maybe theirs will be next? You better believe they do. Now the ripple of violence has extended from the thousands to everyone who is in any American school. The ripple effect doesn’t stop there. There are also those parents who have learned to add this new, terrifying worry about sociopathological shootings to their list of things to worry about concerning their children growing up in our societies.

The contemplative works through the same ripple of violence, extending felt-thoughts of consolation from the close and personal through the whole tangled web that reaches to touch everyone.