Pulled by Values

Last week ended with a consideration of how much poorer the world would be if the United States were no longer a going concern. I’d like to offer one way in which that might be so as a way of introducing this week’s discussion of values. I suggest that what the United States has represented in the world above all else is a set of values. Arguably the foundation of the Untied States was the greatest lasting legacy of the Masonic and fraternal brotherhoods. Masonry was a child of the Age of Reason and its founders were determined to do what they could to stomp out the religious wars which had been raging on the European continent for centuries. In their teaching they elevate the reality of brotherhood above the religious and philosophical abstractions which divide us. This led them to seek something new in the world: the separation of church and state. America’s first amendment is the embodiment of that ideal, that commitment to take armies and politics out of the hands of the church. Current headlines show this is still a very lively debate.

The time has come to talk of how beliefs are expressions of values and try to convey the importance of values both for understanding ourselves as a species and for leading a meaningful life. The religious traditions we have been surveying have each provided countless millions of our fellow human beings with community and moral direction. I even know atheists and agnostics who have sent their children to church for their education in morality and values, recognizing that one of their key roles is in supporting young families and shaping young minds.

It is here, where real lives interface with the mythic symbols, that the truth of a belief system is to be found. At any rate there is a psychological truth here that undoubtedly has real effects in the real world, regardless of the veracity of any dogmatic content we might consider. Put simply, these great symbol systems do not need to be true in a scientific sense, in fact cannot be since they contradict one another, to ring true in a psychological sense for some people, some of the time.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” Pascal

It seems that if we are to understand anything about ourselves this widespread phenomenon, self identified among believers as the most important part of their lives, must be included. It was a mistake of the Age of Reason to expect that rational argument and scientific demonstration alone would dislodge what they called the superstitions of man. They failed to appreciate that aspect of symbols that reaches into depths of direct emotional and perceptual experience, all that is not so much irrational as a-rational. They capture apperceptions, which are accompanied by a sense of penetrating deeply into reality with a profoundly meaningful insight, that do not use formal logic at all.

When our cognitive apparatus confronts the numinous aspect of the symbol it has a tendency to take flight on the wings of abstraction. It flies into the aethers of dogmatic certainty buoyed up by experiences of consciousness confronting emotions and perceptions in a particularly raw and direct fashion. Faith feels right.

That feeling is involved is just the clue we need. That feeling is involved in all faith is not a dirty little secret to be hushed into a corner by apologetics. Feelings are how we encounter, express, and embody our personal and cultural values. The myths and stories, symbols and rituals of religion are the vehicles by which these values take on form among us. They confront us with a choice about how we will live.

This is an important point Viktor Frankl makes in Man’s Search for Meaning. Values pull man, they do not drive him as an instinct does. They pull because there is always a choice involved; to accept or reject what is being offered. “Man is never driven to moral behavior; in each instance he decides to behave morally. Man does not do so in order to satisfy a moral drive and to have a good conscience; he does so for the sake of a cause to which he commits himself, or for a person whom he loves, or for the sake of his God.”

He does so for the sake of a cause. This is how the ego is removed from the driver’s seat. Something bigger than just your own appetites becomes a part of your experience. But we have to be careful here since the ego can easily hide its agendas behind the most righteous garbs. When individuals encounter the psychic force built up around these collective symbol systems they are initially swept away. It takes time to develop the critical faculties required to take a step back and consider that one’s own symbolic inheritances are fundamentally equivalent to others. People of good will the world over, in any century or country you care to name, have been inspired by the same good heart you and your kin have known. Though our values express our individuality more than any other aspect of our character, we share most of their fundamental characteristics with all the members of Homo Sapiens, in fact most likely with all mammals. We mature by examining our inherited and epigenetically formed values in light of our own individual experience and choosing which ones we will strengthen and lend support to at the expense of others.

With all the killing in the name of religion from inquisitions to crusades it is easy to overlook the rather quieter role of religious stories in our lives. They are there to transmit values from one generation to the next. A mother tells her children the story of Moses to communicate the types of values she believes constitutes good character. As an example, consider the story of Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac we looked at earlier in the context of child sacrifice. Here the value being transmitted is clearly that we must be willing to sacrifice what is most dear to us if the ultimate truth requires it. It is getting at what we said above about how a cause can give us the strength to transcend our selfishness.

The value of the Christian story is non-violence as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and countless, nameless others have understood for centuries. Its simple message has been slandered and obfuscated since the beginning since it is awfully inconvenient for those who profit from war. Still it is hard to miss. The whole point about this person being the son of god and not just any person like you and me is that they had the miraculous ability to call down the whole host of heaven, literally the armies of heaven, yet chose not to – even under torture. Buddha taught a similar insight into our moral reality:

“Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.”

It is more than just a little ironic that the United States which prided itself on being a Christian nation became the country with the largest military in the history of the earth.

This bond between religious stories, symbols and rites and our systems of values is inseparable. Our cultural and personal identity is shaped and formed through the epigenetic process of development throughout our long childhoods, as previously discussed, and that process includes exposure to cultural religious traditions. This developmental role of values may help explain how they are the source of the strongest differences among us; as we say, one man’s heaven is another man’s hell. When push comes to shove at this level of our deepest values, we find it trivial to justify the demonization and destruction of the other – the blasphemer and heretics who dare to value things in ways unlike ourselves.

We are not unwise when we recognize it is a world in which it is best to allow different strokes for different folks, different scenes for different genes. We are less wise when we forget values can only pull us forward. Then we are sorely tempted to force our values on others through conversion and confrontation at the end of a gun and by means of bomb vests.

Here’s the thing. The values chosen will in no small part determine the emotional reaction you will have to the various events of your life and times. This emotional reaction will in turn determine the overall level of satisfaction you will have with your life. No wonder our most heated arguments are around conflicting values; we instinctively recognize how much is at stake.

Our values are not reached through wholly rational analysis but by a combination of reason and emotion harvesting the fruits of perceptual experience. One person has every benefit a life in a first world country can offer yet only ever complains, while another with crushing physical handicaps and haunted by uncertainty around their next meal greets every event with a cheerful heart. What makes such profoundly fundamental differences among us but the values by which we view our lives and experiences? The values we hold will color the motives we attribute to others to explain their actions; was that rudeness a typical manifestation of that person’s perverse and cursed nature or a simple slip under pressure of a person most likely to be friendly and helpful to most people, most of the time?

Need it be pointed out that our attitude about the earth and its bounty, or stinginess, will also arise from the same types of dynamics within our psyches?

As a culture we are learning to appreciate that the opportunity costs that accompany choosing a value are enormous. Choose to value consumer goods, for example, and a whole collection of alternative values goes by the wayside. Equally, choose to value a thriving and healthy biosphere and a different set of alternative values are going to be left unexplored. See how values pull us, tug on us, tempting us to offer them our loyalty?

It is difficult to remember in the arena of values that our rational, logical arguments will only carry us so far. A sort of pseudo-rationalism is put to work justifying positions with warring rhetoric and symbolisms. The environmental movement has been trying to present the facts of the ecological crisis in the mistaken conviction that a clear presentation would lead people to change their choice of values. Revolutionaries from across the political spectrum have made the same short-sighted mistake; they believed a rational presentation of a better way would lead the people to adopt it forthwith. As we have learned dearly, the totalitarian persuasions are not far behind. So what of environmentalism? Is there a green jack-boot in its future? Perhaps. As the wheels continue to fall off the bus of fossil fueled industrial civilization much will depend on the values we choose.

Value Pushers

Last week we looked at how values pull us forward, inspiring us to strengthen our better natures. A moral ideal can only offer itself, we decide to pursue it or not. Values cannot push us forward; acts of goodness forced have not been considered moral acts since before the time of Plato. This has not kept some in every generation from trying to push values, forcing them on others. This authoritarian approach may no longer force conversions at gun point but the heavy handed ways of those authoritarian hierarchies we looked at back in Egypt’s pyramids is as prevalent now as it ever has been.

The difference between this push and pull is analogous to the difference in physics between tension, the force that pulls and compression which is the force that pushes. When a good friend who was a civil engineer taught us the basics of engineering he put the rule concerning these forces quite succinctly, “don’t push on a string.” In part this is how we build bridges that stay up through thick and thin. A similar principal dwells in the psyche.

The sponge that is the childhood brain absorbs the norms of its parents and society right along with its mother’s milk. The child progresses through its ethical training by extending its listening from the mother to the father, then on to the family, the baby-sitter or daycare attendant and on to teacher and classroom which will remain the context for the rest of that human being’s pre-adult development. In these environments the child encounters numerous conflicting messages about what is socially acceptable or not. We are educated in the good, the bad and the ugly.

The child is of course not a blank slate. They are bringing a very specific and unique set of genetic pre-dispositions to whatever events the play of chance, coincidence and circumstance deliver to their growing mind. Not one human being anywhere at any time could claim any less or any more than this same cosmic inheritance. We know now how the mind is prepared to respond to the environment it finds itself in by turning on and off the expression of genes as needed and invoked by triggering circumstances. This moldable aspect of human nature has long been recognized, “give me a child till they are seven and I will shape the man” went the old Jesuit boast. A bit overblown perhaps but clearly the human child can be shaped into any number of cultural forms.

There is no choice about educating the young mind. That is going to happen. What should concern us is what values we are going to educate them in. Let us assume that the long rich history of human thought includes precious, hard earned insights into living well which we want to pass onto the next generation, as we say, religiously.

This being the case there are two ways we can think about our existential situation. One hypothesis is that whatever is of highest value that must be passed on to the next generation will be found outside the individual. In this view a sacred revelation or tradition or book rooted in the deep past is the single most important human wisdom. This is what they will strive to share with their children. This approach includes numerous spokespersons for delivering the moral message, including the parents themselves if they are fundamentalist believers. In these homes the natural teaching role of parents as loving, fallible human beings can easily become mixed up with the moral absolutes claimed by the divine.

The other way of thinking about the epigenetic nature of human development is rooted in the opposite hypothesis. By this way of thinking whatever is of highest value which must be passed on to the coming generation is something to be found within. In this view the purpose of education is not to instill a truth from the outside but to provide what is needed for a human being to flourish through using their own capabilities. Education is the avenue for engaging in a dialog with inherited thought, guided by one’s own creativity and curiosity. The ideal is the life long learner.

These two understandings of the human condition diverge around the question of authority. Where should the locus of ultimate authority for an individual lie? It is worth reminding ourselves that all of human conscious experience has only ever been through the medium of individual lives. Though this is an obvious truism, it is easy to fall into an abstraction of the past that seems to somehow include something more. So it is a question about where an individual ultimately turns for meaning – to their direct experience of living and dying or to an external source, an authority.

I’ve presented the two possible hypotheses as if they had equal weight, as if it were a rather simple choice between which camps one belongs to. Perhaps in these opposing worldviews we could see the roots of the conservative and liberal, the believer and the agnostic, the republican and the democrat. Well, not quite. I think these are deeper waters, deep enough to see reflections of liberation, emptiness, and a joyful path.

The first camp provides a way for the voice of the individual to abdicate its responsibility for what it is teaching since they claim to only be passing on the received truth. Against this collective weight of shared belief those in the other camp have only their lone voice to raise in opposition; the deck is heavily stacked against them. Just consider for a moment how challenging it is to depend on your own understanding, your own insights one-hundred and ten percent. Those who take the path of the individual listen to the priests and gurus, scientists and philosophers but at the end of the day they bet with their lives on their own understanding of what is and what is not real and true.

I think it takes work to really be in the second camp and take responsibility for your own mind. We are all susceptible to numerous avoidance plays, even when we see the sense of this position. Modern life makes it very easy to get so busy we can become distracted away from the big questions for years, the questions of values and how we should live. It is also easy in this environment to harbor a vague dependency on experts. When this happens we do not just see them as the storehouses of detailed knowledge which they are, but as relieving us of the duty to think for ourselves. Then, for example, the ubiquitous response to concern about the Eco-crisis, ‘they’ll think of something,’ is expressing a fundamentalist belief instead of expressing the simple emotional aspiration; ‘Gee, I sure hope they think of something.’

Faith in engineering creates a technological priesthood just as surely as faith in holy books create the soteriological priesthoods.

It is interesting how this question of authority works well for appreciating some of the history of ideas that have accompanied Western history. The Protestant reformation was a move in the direction of the individual over the authoritarian hierarchy yet the results could hardly be said to qualify as complete liberation from membership in the first camp. In fact the most dogmatic Christian denominations are found among the Protestants. The movement of collective thought then took another step towards the individual with the rise of Deism, Nature’s God. These thinkers concerned themselves with battling superstition in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, which in their view only obscured the truth of the creator they found best expressed in the timelessness of scientific laws such as Newtonian dynamics. It is from the Deists that Masonry is born and, as mentioned last week, it is from Masonry that many of the ideals that inspired the formation of the United States are drawn. The United States has been at the forefront of another step towards the individual with modernization’s thoroughgoing secularization under a technocracy.

Numerous scholars have taken this move towards the individual in the history of ideas as their field of study. Just a glance at a few titles gives a sense of how it has often been interpreted; The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, and The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity.

Somewhere on our journey to Ayn Rand neoliberalism we went off the rails. Dissolving the effectiveness of the bulwarks of community left individuals as easy prey to the authoritarian hierarchies now firmly grasping the helm of history: the international mega-corporations.

There are further complications. The separation of the two camps in not as straight forward as this introduction to this new cycle of posts has implied. There is a key role to be played by what has been called the inner guru as an authority the individual needs to learn to recognize. Lacking this element, these steps towards the individual and away from authoritarian hierarchies leads to the type of empty, pompous egomania so pervasively on display in our day and age. Also it is true that among the non-fundamentalist sects there is recognition of the difference between a childhood faith based on accepting the word of others and a mature adult faith arrived at by an individual struggling with the quest for answers to the big questions on their own. The final complication we must consider is that there may be no black and white answer to a choice between the two camps; maybe all we can hope for is a position on the spectrum of belief.

As I said, I think it is hard work to be in the second camp.  It is much easier to pride ourselves as being paragons of individual freedom than to actually live free lives.

A large part of why this is so deals with how the authoritarian voice is implanted in our heads through our long childhood. Extremely polarizing moralities are pushed by harshly critical inner voices; voices we usually only dimly perceive, yet they are adept at crushing our self esteem. Most people in a consumer society feel rather down on themselves, to put it mildly. To pull no punches about the inherent pathology: hating themselves they hate life, hating life they hate the earth on which it unfolds.

Imprinting – A Model

How memory works is one of the more unusual discoveries of modern neuroscience. Once a memory enters consciousness it typically includes a sense of veracity, a sense that the content of the memory accurately reflects the circumstances being recalled. When we compare our memories with others who were at the same event we quickly learn how each individual lays down their own version of things, a fact reporters and lawyers work with in a practical way every day.

This universal experience of accessing memories provided brain researchers with a whole host of interesting questions starting with, what is a memory? The neuroscientist knows the brain trace of a memory must be using particular neural circuits, like any brain state. One hypothesis was that when a memory is created a particular set of neurons is assigned the job. This gave rise to what is sometimes referred to in cognitive science as the grandmother cell; the idea that your image-memory of your grandmother’s face is bound up with your grandmother neurons. In this model accessing the memory of your grandmother is as simple as allowing those grandmother neurons to fire. This hypothesis agrees with our intuitive notion that a memory needs to be somewhere since that is what it feels like to access one; like reaching out to contact something already there, laid aside in the past when the memory was created.

It turns out this hypothesis was wrong. There is no assignment of particular neurons sets to particular memories as far as we can tell with today’s theories, instruments and data. What actually happens is that the brain re-creates a pattern of neurological firings. The memory is not in the cells but in the pattern. The act of memory is not re-accessing but an act of re-creation.

Consider an event that is now a memory; say learning how grandma’s face looked while she baked cookies. When the event was occurring your brain was in a particular state. Its neuronal firings were forming a specific configuration by which it processed the sensory signals and the emotional and physiological context of those moments. Part of this enormous symphony of electrochemical information exchange gets relayed through the hippocampus which lays down the perception of grandmother’s face as a memory to keep. The details of how this happens are not understood but the process is believed to work with both short term and long term memory differentiation and we know, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, that it requires a healthy amount of REM sleep before the memory is actually retained long term.

Now when the smell of cookies immediately brings to mind grandma’s face, what research shows is that the pattern is recreated. A memory depends on a particular configuration, a re-creation of a previous brain state. In the grandmother neuron hypothesis we expect a few hundred neurons captured the information about grandmother you will later need to recall. What was found instead is that the whole brain gets into the act of calling forth grandma’s face with hundreds of millions of neurons involved. Oh, and one of the neurons involved in remembering grandma is also involved when you remember your first day of school and every time you recognize the color red or some such. The memories are not ‘in’ the neurons, they are ‘in’ the pattern.

The act of recall then is not at all what it seems to be before it is analyzed. It seems introspectively that when we perform an act of memory we are looking into the past, that we are examining a photograph or movie with our inner eye. In fact what is occurring is a re-creation of the information processing dynamics that occurred in the past. We don’t examine a photograph, we re-create the set and setting in our imaginations. This discovery certainly explains all those observations captured in our folk wisdom about how unreliable memory can be.

In getting aquatinted with our minds this is worth spending time with in contemplation. What are memories? Where and how are memories stored? How are they created? What happens when we remember something? What does it mean when our species drives another one to extinction so that the whole of that expression of life is now no more than a memory?

I am usually persuaded that the best model we have for the mind that accounts for all the wild and weird, as well as its everyday manifestations, is that consciousness is a non-local phenomenon just as such are understood in quantum mechanics. Parts of the evidence for some such strangeness at the heart of our consciousness are the puzzles surrounding this feature of memory which is so central to our experience. Consider, if a memory is a re-creation of a previous brain state, what triggers it? What form must the trigger take to be able to re-create the pattern accurately enough to provide a memory that in turn is accurate enough to be useful? Just how many of these previous brain states are accessible? Under hypnosis and other altered states an amazing spectrum of recall can become accessible. Perhaps not even the smallest detail of any experience is ever wholly forgotten.

Or consider just how many memories the human brain is capable of storing, and where exactly are they stored? They reappear as a re-creation of previous patterns, where are those memories held when they are not being recalled? The Abhidharma postulates what is called the Alaya consciousness as the repository for just his sort of thing. And what does all this mean for the ontological status of my experience of this present moment when it too is no more or less than a particular pattern of energetic neuron firings I might one day remember with no more or less sense that it was real than that which accompanies any other memory?

By the way, this type of contemplation can aid us when suffering pain in the present moment. Recalling that the present moment has no inherent ontological status greater than any other moment of consciousness you have experienced in the past can provide some distance, some separation from the pain, some space from which it can be worked with. The trick is you need to remember this in the midst of the pain. How can we better our chances of remembering such wisdom in the midst of intense mental states like pain? By what we refer to as mind training; the creation of new patterns and then strengthening those through repeated use. This brings us to another word for this process of laying down these neurological patterns in our memory: learning.

The rule of nervous system neural nets is that use strengthens the circuits being used, making it more probable that they will be us again. Since the information is in the pattern, this manipulation of probabilities is very important.

SimpleGraphImagine this simple model is a small part of your memory of the times tables and the path 1 – 2 – 4 represents 7 X 7 = 49. Through rote memorization you learned to take this path every time. You let atrophy the potential but unused path 1 – 3 – 4 which represented say 7 X 6 = 49. When you were reciting your times tables you we’re running through this 1 – 2 – 4 circuit again and again, teaching your brain to make this particular information readily accessible and that when it is accessed, it needs to take this particular form to be useful. This ability to strengthen the ability to ‘do it right’ through repetitions is also what is behind the ability we have to master a craft or a musical instrument. However complex the skills required for mastery might be, they can be honed through this process that strengthens some paths at the expense of all those others which might be taken by someone with less skill.

Those readers interested in a more in-depth discussion of neural nets will find it in a new page I have added to the probability section of this blog. It deals with Bayesian networks used to create a probability oracle using machine intelligence.These are not the same as neural nets as they are studied in computer science but in my opinion model the brain at least equally well.

In addition to repetition there is a second way these brain circuits get strengthened. If the initial experience is one accompanied by shock or other extreme psychological states the imprint can be formed already strong. This is what happens with traumatic memories. Those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from war, child abuse, or other highly charged events are literally being recaptured by greatly strengthened patterns laid down in an instant. Something similar seems to occur on the positive side of life with peak experiences.

The act of learning lays down an imprint on the biological substratum of our neural nets.

This idea of energetic patterns imprinting themselves into our biology can be a very useful one for understanding a number of otherwise hard to understand aspects of our cognitive and emotional experience. For example, the obsessive compulsive suffers from circuits having been strengthened to the point that they fire even when they are maladaptive in the current environment. Another example is how these circuits once they are engaged tend to run their course, which helps explain the physiological underpinnings for what is recognized in psychology as life scripts, mindless loops, and semi-automatic sub-routines. The same dynamics can also be recognized in sports as the skill of riding a bicycle, jumping a high bar, or what not.

Understanding imprinting is a sort of update to seeing ourselves as composed of the skandhas. These circuits are among the parts of the collections by which we recognize ourselves as ourselves. Changing ourselves involves not just an act of will and moral courage but also an often long and difficult journey through retraining electrochemical habituation. Recognizing this we should not beat ourselves up when we fail and we should be grateful for even the smallest increment of getting better.

Psychiatric medicine for depression, when it works, does so ultimately by altering the neurotransmitter soup by which the strength of such circuits are maintained. In this case a chemical level of manipulation is used to effect the chemical nature of the imprinting. Of course, not all medicines being widely used in our culture in such a fashion, however unconsciously, are coming from a psychiatrist’s office.

I believe meditation is also able to do this rewiring. It is a scalpel where most drugs are a sledge hammer. It is capable of using the calm depths of shamatha to power the charge that surrounds vipassana. With practice and over time the skill develops both in starving some circuits – as we pray “may anti-dharmic thoughts cease” – and creating powerful learning and healing encounters around compassion and wisdom as if they were mini-traumas of our own choosing.

Instead of being a puppet of chance and circumstance we have some degree of control over how our minds work. All people are involved in these same processes all the time, though with varying levels of skill. What organizes our ongoing efforts at pruning and strengthening these circuits of the mind are our most deeply held values. They color our every experience by adjusting their weights, their probabilities. The advice to a hot-head to count to ten before giving vent to their anger is a neurological technique for diminishing the auto-pilot nature of going off the handle. In other words, restrain a bit now and in the future it becomes more likely that you will be able to exercise restraint again. Exercise restraint in dealing with small upsets and you increase the likelihood that you will be able to exercise restraint when larger triggering events occur.

Remember that memory is not a playback of a perfect duplicate of the patterns but a re-creation. We embody a certain openness or space in which things can change if we do not keep them frozen. Those who work with traumatic memories know how reframing one can change the whole characteristic appearance of the post-traumatic symptoms. This is what reductionists miss who see in all this neuro-technology of imprinting energy patterns on biochemical circuits nothing but “mindless” stimulus and response. They miss the freedom this spaciousness provides.

Which brings us to the question of who should be authorized to form and manipulate a human being’s imprinting? With imprinting added to our cognitive tool-belt we are in a good position to understand the difference between teaching and manipulation. We will take a look at that next week.

Education vs. Manipulation

“There comes a boiling-point in the scale of all intellectual development, at which all faith, all revelation, and all authority evaporate, and Man claims the right to judge for himself; the right, not only to be taught, but to be convinced.”
On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Arthur Schopenhauer

 

The makers of the ever-tempting potato chip, of the I-can’t-eat-just-one variety, are not the summit of culinary craftsmanship. What they do is package substances that were rare in our evolutionary past; typically fats and salts. Since the human body needs small quantities of these chemicals yet they were rare in our ancestral environments, we are born craving them. This is nature’s way of saying, ‘get up off the couch and go find some.’

In come the chip manufacturers, swooping in and capitalizing on a human being’s powerful deep-time imprints. Defeating the purpose of the cravings, we are right back on the couch with a bag of chips in hand. We can say we are all free to choose to eat that first potato chip or not but we are approaching a slippery slope here. Using some of the deepest cravings of our physiology as temptations have made McDonalds and their ilk some of the most pervasive food suppliers on the planet.

I call this an Aikido move: external powers with their own agendas use your own power against you. In the case of nutrition-less fast-food the strength they are using against the consumer is the intelligence that is found in the body’s ability to regulate the intake of food so it provides every little element that is needed to maintain its homeostasis. This is a very strong intelligence which unfortunately for those hoping to avoid heart disease and fortunately for the profits of said companies, does not include an equally strong shut off signal. Such a signal was not needed in the environment of scarce salt and fat in which these neural circuits were laid down in the genetic code.

Are said companies providing a service, as they claim, or are they manipulating these consumers?

Might some similar dynamic exist within the complex world of human psychology? Of course it does. Rational people are not spending the millions and millions of dollars it takes to develop a Super Bowl advertisement as a contribution to our stock of cultural art. These are mini-dramas full of damnation and salvation, always delivered in ever more provocative ways to bypass the consumer’s critical thinking skills. Like the chip manufacturer, the maker of such images is zeroing in on and using for their own purposes powerful motivations for human behavior which were first laid down in our species thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years ago.

We can choose not to watch but again it is a slippery slope where somewhere these activities cross the line into mental manipulation pure and simple. It needs also to be said, and we need to understand very clearly, that not seeing any corporate advertising is impossible for anyone who must take an active part in their own survival in our modern societies. To say don’t watch is a little disingenuous.

When one of those little advertising ditties occupies your head, you kind of need to let it play through to its finish don’t you? There is a craving here of sorts. Take a moment, right now, to remember the last time you had a really good potato chip. Feel the crispness, hear the crackle, taste the salt… Now, can you sense how much you want a chip or would want that second chip? Can you feel the glands in your mouth region react just to the thought of a chip? Might the mind react equivalently in its own domain?

The advertisers are working with a single goal: to get you to buy. This purchase will take place if you are persuaded that it will benefit you more than saving your money or spending it on something else would. We think of ourselves as rational purchasing agents who just want something (badly, now!) even though we are witnesses to the types of messages we have been subject to concerning the products. Well, all those advertising dollars are betting that human beings do not, in fact, work this way. Their messages are all about how with the purchase of their X you will finally be popular, happy, sexually worshipped and all the other shop-worn goodies in their bag of tricks. Their messages are designed to bypass rational thought. They work directly with the emotions and the symbols and myths that pertain to the archetypes of human consciousness.

Advertising adjusts a consumer’s belief and value systems – and it works to the tune of billions of dollars a year. The ad man’s guiding rule gives the whole show away; “create a need, and then sell it.” This is how it’s recursive, Catch-22 works:

Step One: make you feel unhappy, unfulfilled, and lacking
Step Two: show people happy, fulfilled, and satisfied
Step Three: link the happy people’s happiness with owning X
Step Four: you don’t own X yet? Go to step one…

I consider this a grand scale experiment. The human mind has become a Petri dish in which very deep pockets are working hard on the creation of viruses that can resist even the strongest antibiotics. What is the antibiotic? The consumer’s ability to reason and choose values for themselves. An ad wants to place an imprint in your memory that equates happiness with the purchase of their product. Since deep time’s mysterious purpose in fashioning us so that we seek happiness, almost like we seek salt and fat, failed to take the advertiser’s doodad into account, the ad men take it upon themselves to hijack the desire for happiness. That is the whole point.

Traditional teaching says that there are some environments that are more conductive to the practice of Dharma than others. I suggest the environment of the mass media mind is one in which it is very difficult. There is not much that is wholesome and uplifting out in the cultural wastelands of these times. I think artistic media can be good at reflecting collective issues and darker motivations for the winds of history blowing through our times but we need to understand it is not the innocent escapism it advertises itself to be. We would all be wise to learn to be satisfied with a little less stimulation.

Are you starting to get a sense that creating a sustainable society is going to take a bit more than just changing our light bulbs? I’ve talked about potato chips; an extension of these ideas to the politics and policies of the modern world is left as an exercise for the reader.

Compare these wily ways of advertising with a teaching lesson. A classroom teacher will use primarily verbal skills, the language of reasoning, instead of using larger than life symbolism. As the lesson progresses a skilled teacher will help the learners make connections between the new information and related things that they already know. This places the new information within the context of the whole person and the knowledge and values they have already ascribed to. After the rote memory lessons like the ABCs and the times-tables, teachers need to include a presentation of the evidence for why what is being taught is considered real and true. The teacher’s goal is for each student to fairly weigh the evidence for and against a proposition and thereby come to their own conclusions.

Manipulation is born in the ego’s hubris. It uses whatever power it can get its hands on to control the world and other people. Doing so it creates the dog-eat-dog world in which we are all fighting our way to the top against billions and billions of other people equally desperate to win. The alternative is to approach the world and the people in it in a spirit of cooperation, from the place of loving-kindness.

Both the teacher and the advertiser are looking to install their information into your long term memory, which as we saw last week means they want to create a neurobiological imprint within your nervous system. But there is a difference. To make the difference as stark as possible here is a simple model:

Information -> memorized aka imprinted ->
Education: judged: accepted or rejected and the imprint strengthened or weakened accordingly
Or
Manipulation: bypass conscious judgment: repetition of stimulus and the use of the shocking, feared and the irrational to strengthen the imprint

Mindfulness can allow us to catch a glimpse of the imprints in action. Observing when the rational mind is involved in decisions, and when it is not, is itself a rather powerful technique. When things come over you, you might want to ask: is this a legitimate desire and need for who I am, born from my own values, or is it something implanted by someone else? What we are talking about is who is in the driver’s seat. Mind manipulation has all but replaced learned discussion in the public sphere. Robot programming is all the rage as a literate society dwindles. The blind are leading the greedy and at this rate both will fall over the ecological-crisis cliff. Pray tell, dear reader, how are you going to get off the bus?

Meditation and contemplation are ways to learn to grab the wheel and steer your own vehicle, your own body-mind. It probably needs a little cleaning; a little work here and there; it might even be carrying someone else’s luggage in the trunk but still… Good Sirs and Madams, your chariot awaits.

Anything Can Happen

“I never tire of saying that the only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but the moment they are actualized, they are rendered realities; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and saved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irrecoverably lost but everything irrevocably stored.
…Man constantly makes his choice concerning the mass of present potentialities; which of these will be condemned to nonbeing and which will be actualized? Which choice will be made an actuality, once and forever, an immortal ‘footprint in the sands of time’? At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.
…Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being.”
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

 

When we spoke of the neurophysiology of memory we touched on the fascinating question about where memories might exist when they are not conscious. In passing, mention was made of one of the Buddhist theories that postulates a type of base consciousness in which all past deeds have left their impression. This so-called Alaya consciousness has been used to explain how teachings about being reborn can be reconciled with teachings about the unreality of the self. It is a solution of sorts to the questions around what role the past performs in a universe characterized by interdependence and emptiness.

The openness of potentialities Victor Frankl wrote about shares some characteristics with the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Emptiness can be said to the source from which events in the present appear. There is freedom here in this emptiness that reaches right into the roots of things because, it is taught, things have no essence. It is not unlike the world revealed by quantum mechanics where there are no fixed and frozen things, only knots of spacetime.

What crosses the gulf between potential and actual is just that which current causes and conditions require. Those causes and conditions include some degree of freedom, particularly when we are talking about the choices available to human beings. While it might seem that what you will do in the next instant is rather constrained by a small handful of rational choices, it is not a fundamental characteristic of the next moment; it is a set of constraints you impose, nothing more. After all, you could get up from reading this right now and head to an airport to fly to Timbuktu or kiss the very next person you meet or any of an inconceivably vast set of possibilities.

This being the case it is interesting that more often than not the next moment follows the previous one with a degree of regularity we have learned to count on. It might very well be that ultimate reality is radically momentary but what we experience in the world of our day-to-day interactions is the world of cause and effect. The best illustration of this important point I am familiar with is found in the field of probability. The equation for dealing with what are called independent events, such as a fair coin toss, differs from the equations used to deal with events whose outcome depends on previous outcomes, such as how tomorrow’s weather depends on the weather we are having today. It is known as the gamblers fallacy to think when flipping a coin that because there has been a string of heads, a tails must be coming up soon. It might seem non-intuitive but really it’s obvious since one toss of a coin can have no effect on the outcome of a future toss of a coin by any force recognized by science.

While ultimate reality might be more akin to the independent probability of the coin toss, the relative reality we human-sized being’s experience is more like conditional probability. Most everything that happens does so because of what came before. In particular, for many of the issues we care about most, past actions alter the probability of possible future actions coming to pass.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses the analogy of a passenger boarding a flight to illustrate this interplay of free will and determinism. For much of the process of being a passenger a person can change their mind and not take a given flight; on the way to airport I can choose to return home; in the airport line I can choose not to go through with the ticketing and so on. Even at the point at which I am are strapped down and buckled in I could change my mind and get up and leave the airplane as long as the door is still open. Even when the taxing down the runway begins, if I had the clout, I could have the plane stopped and get off but there does come a moment when the choice about taking this flight or not is no longer available to me. The moment those wheels lift off the ground I am on that flight and the next set of choices in my life will have to deal with that.

Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious played a similar explanatory role as the Alaya. The world we see everywhere around us is one that was born from decisions and circumstances that filled its past. It does not just spring into being, fully formed, from some nothingness but every detail can be traced back to some previous conditions. It was Jung’s opinion that individuals brought with them a type of psychological inheritance from our long years in deep time that provided the scaffolding for consciousness to function. Further, the ideas we learn to think in, which we receive from our cultural ancestors, shape what it is possible for us to think at all, just as what we dare to think will shape the knowledge and understanding of our progeny.

Jung suggested that not only individuals but whole communities, cultures and nations also were manifesting their current forms due to the specific history they had pursued. At one level, of course, this is just a truism. The point of these teachings though is to bring attention to the fact that there is a whole cognitive dimension to these inheritances as well as the institutions we typically think of. What he had in mind was more than the scholarly pursuit often called the history of ideas, though this was involved. For Jung the psyche was working out its relationship to archetypal themes and motifs in the issues of the day. As made clear particularly in The Red Book we, the generation of the living, are tasked with taking up the burdens of our dead. The Great Depression and the World Wars occupied his thought as examples of a kind of collective psychosis. It seems reasonable: there is something within the issues of the day that reflect issues of psychological maturity among the population as individuals.

In the teachings of the east we find the idea that communities and nations have “karma” just as much as individuals do. Karma is a big subject and one that may need posts of its own one day but for our present purposes the most basic translation as ‘action’ suffices. Actions taken in the past do not just disappear – that is the central lesson of both of these ideas whether we encounter them in their eastern or western form.

Each of us can understand that actions taken in the past do not disappear by considering how our present self is a product of our past self. Who we are today is the culmination of the unique set of choices and circumstances we have experienced. This is both good news and terrifying news. Everyone alive harbors painful and profound regrets for some past deeds. We can say we are sorry and live in such a way as to show our regret is real, yet nothing we do can erase the past.

This is the sadness that accompanies the man in jail who in a moment of passion pulled a trigger and took a life. Nothing brings back the victim. A very similar sadness grips those of us who have seen the social and ecological nightmares born from the engineering and political choices we have already made. “I’m sorry” seems so pathetically weak; can you visualize the two hundred species that went extinct today – today and every day – and say I’m sorry? If you do this exercise you are acting like a stand-in for your own species. You are not personally responsible for most of what it is you have inherited. You are responsible for how you will respond.

Which brings us to the positive side of this relationship between past, present and future. The choices you make today are full of power. The tomorrow of your future self is in the hands of who you are today.

The same reality organizes our social world. In the 1970s, when the first energy crisis struck the western world, we chose not to pursue the alternative technologies that were designed to wean our infrastructure from its wholesale dependency on cheap fossil fuels. The result is the society we have today, in which we face an energy crisis more extreme with little or nothing built up to greet it. What we have instead is a morass of lies and double-talk drowning in delusional anthropomorphic hubris. We all know the system we have today is not sustainable; climate change alone is enough to put paid to the idea that business as usual has a future. Remember the projection of the current trend is that there will be twice as many cars on the road by 2050. Really?

There was once a fairly common bit of folk wisdom along the lines that it is often wise to sacrifice an immediate good for the benefit of a greater good in the future. Saying no to ourselves today is another way of saying yes to our self of tomorrow. Choosing, for example, a second helping of vegetables instead of dessert might very well allow you to experience a longer life with those you love.

Capitalism once had this core of common sense. An entrepreneur willingly sacrifices future earnings to acquire a loan, borrowing from his future self. Before capitalism became the casino it is today, such a decision was not taken lightly. It was a very big deal to borrow from the future to try and create a better present. The Protestant ethic included the belief that hard work today would lead to a better life tomorrow, much as resisting temptation today would lead to a character strong in virtue. These ideas might be properly considered hopelessly old fashion today but the core reality they are teaching us about has not changed. Well, the future isn’t what it used to be and the word is getting around.

When we hear echoes of Nazi Germany in presidential debates it should set off bells. It should jar us a bit from our sleepwalking through history. The things we are doing today matter. These too big to fail banks, the ones failing again, could potentially bring real world suffering to millions and millions of people. The foreign policy hawks itching to bring war to Russia and the Middle East have already set flame to a fuse now burning outside anyone’s control. Are we to be held hostage to witnessing further mistaken decisions being made in our name?

It is not inevitable. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ll let you in on the secret of history – ideas are more powerful than armies.

A small blip from deep space washed over our earth back in September as a gravity wave distorted the length of a two and a half mile detector. We caught space itself warping. Two black holes spun into an embrace over a billion years ago, sending us their calling card from deep time, making world news last week (just while Bowie of the Blackstar is in his Bardo, for those who are paying attention to such things). The confirmation of one of mankind’s most far reaching and profound scientific theories was simply shocking in its specificity. To have a confirmation of those mathematically sophisticated relativity equations running into multiple decimal points is downright spooky. There is a lesson here. Einstein did his work decades before the technology could accumulate the evidence needed for its confirmation. His insight was true. It is a wonderful example of just how far the shared knowledge of the scientific community has come.

Why then do we not grant our scientific models about the ongoing ecological crisis more weight? How is that we deal with them as if what they are teaching us were optional, as if we were shopping for the truth the same way we might shop for our preferred brand of toothpaste? Nothing threatens the stability and peace of the modern world more than the threats that were laid out decades ago in the Limits to Growth study. If this science continues to track as well as it has been, we are in for one hell of a ride. Look around you, really look.

The things we are doing today matter.