Free From Lies

“Trauma stories can reveal not only the criminal actions committed, but also the justifications given for those actions. Trying to understand the motivations of the perpetrators can be risky, because such efforts can seem like a rationalization or even an acceptance of the aggressor’s brutality. But the attempt at understanding is essential to the healing process because the bodies and minds of the traumatized people are imprinted by the belief system of their victimizers. Long after the perpetrators have vanished, their ideologies continue to prey on the minds of the survivors.”
Richard F. Mollica, Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths of Hope and Recovery in a Violent World
(italics added)


It can be painfully confusing to see major changes occurring in one’s society without having an explanatory framework. When the tides of history churn up the waters of everyday life, even the least informed are caught up in the momentum of the moment. There just seems to be something in the air, as we say. We avoid painful confusion whenever possible so it is not surprising to see a plethora of explanations accompany any serious disruptions to business as usual.

Everyone is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on these days. That is certainly what mindful ecology is trying to do. The disruption is affecting all of us, not just journalists and diplomats, CEOs and politicians of every stripe. For example, here is an edgy take by science fiction author Charles Stross that takes the ecological crisis seriously. The sci-fi elements in his post are colorful but the central points he makes remain all too conceivable, to my way of thinking.

Some explanations at times such as this are more helpful than others because they hone closer to the real causes and effects involved. When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans the airwaves were filled with talk about climate change, for example, but there was also no lack of preachers assuring their listeners that this hurricane was a sign from god that this city of Jazz decadence was being punished for its sinful ways. Now that hurricanes Sandy, Andrew, and Matthew have all joined in the destruction of cities, that later explanation has proved itself less than helpful. Specifically, while demonizing populations, which encourages scapegoat violence, the theological explanation has proven itself incapable of inspiring the necessary changes in lifestyles and policies that are needed to avoid even worse disasters in the future.

Chaos scares us. The mind confronted with changes that threaten to spin out of control busies itself constructing an explanatory framework. The framework becomes a psychological bulwark against fears that might otherwise incapacitate us. We see the same process in abused children who work hard to find some means of placing their abuse within the context of the rest of their lives. All of us adults do the same thing, though hopefully without the desperation of identity protection involved in child abuse. As we deal with the fears and cruelty of our day to day encounter with each other and with terrifying news events, we are organizing these events with the help of whatever background beliefs we subscribe to. The mind is a meaning maker, this is how it does what it does.

Those core beliefs direct our attention to some things, for they have become meaningful and important to us. The core beliefs also direct us to ignore, or dismiss as unimportant, those things that do not seem relevant to us.

This semi-conscious network of beliefs informs our experience by supplying us with what is true, for us, about how the world works and our place in it. This is not just an intellectual exercise, something many a teacher, preacher and rhetorician have failed to fully appreciate. These deep seated beliefs are imprinted in the body as much as in the mind. They are formed from the sum of our experiences, including those experiences we have participated in vicariously through empathy. The subjectivity of consciousness, as we encounter it moment by moment, rides the crest of the whole of our lives’ experiences. Those experiences – as we have know them – have been captured within the imprints our nervous system has carved into our body-mind. This is what the nervous system is doing as it ceaselessly processes information. It is this whole, this sum of everything the body has ever known and its reflection in the mind, that has shaped and formed the being we are today.

Children raised in fundamentalist households who break free of their early mind conditioning have managed to alter or replace beliefs at this deeper level. Children raised in physically and sexually abusive households who break free of their early body conditioning have managed to alter or replace beliefs at this deeper level as well. Though healing in the first case may involve more intellectual work and the second case more physical work, we have learned that both are best healed with a combination of cognitive therapy and body work. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma states all this quite clearly. This is yet more evidence that the Cartesian split is a faulty hypothesis.

The implications are not ones our society is ready to accept. It means that the man who punches you in the face is also messing with your belief structure. And, the man who force-feeds you cognitive double binds is also messing with your physiology. It is something you might want to consider the next time you turn on the TV.

This is very similar to the point Alice Miller has been making for years about how dictators and mass murders are formed by physical abuse in their childhoods. As she writes in Free From Lies: Discovering Your True Needs, “Blows inflicted on adults count as grievous bodily harm or torture; those inflicted on children go by the name of upbringing.” She asserts that adults who have not processed the scars left by their childhood abuse become enamored with violence. They are driven to pursue a revenge fantasy against their parents or other abusers. By her reading of history Hitler, Mao, and Stalin murdered tens of millions of individuals due to this dark need first implanted during their own nightmare childhoods. From the prevalence of violent “entertainment” in our modern times it is evident that the abuse of the young remains widespread.

What a foolish idea that abuses can be heaped on our young without end and no consequences would ever befall the perpetrators. In the twisted logic of intergenerational abuse, that is simply not the case. Wars, torture, genocide and finally nuclear weapons are the result for all to see of the secret deeds we thought were hidden from the world. Interdependence rules the universe we encounter objectively, is it so crazy to suggest it also rules our subjectivity? How can I be happy in my Porsche when I know most of my genetic brothers and sisters are deprived because I have taken more than my share? What else do you think it means that the United States has about five percent of the global population and uses about twenty-five percent of the fossil fuel resources available planet wide?

Some live like this
and some live like this

It hurts to wake up every day and face this injustice. It hurts us all. It would hurt less if we were realistically working on policies and cultural changes aimed at rebalancing the income disparities haunting our world. Many, many people do this work every day, but instead of following that path it looks like we are going to follow glitz and glamour right over the cliff into the worst possible future outcomes imaginable. Shouldn’t need come before luxury?

Forgive me, this is too simple. I am sad and angry. My heart is broken; I see us drifting into inquisitions and holy wars. I am frightened uranium and hydrogen weapons will be used to assault living populations and damage ecosystems to the point they are made inhospitable to life for tens of thousands of years. What will it take to move from childish dependency on authority figures to full adult citizenship? First they came for the Hispanics, but I did not speak out, because I was not Hispanic. . .

Is there a realistic chance at an alternative future than the one we are cooking up? I suggest there might be if we are able to begin introducing into the public discussion the full weight of what the science of ecology is teaching us about how we must live together on a planet of limited resources.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a political framework, everything looks to be an issue of power, status and wealth. When all you have is a religious framework, everything looks to be an issue of sin and salvation. When all you have is a sociological framework, everything looks to be a question of institutions. When all you have is a psychological framework, everything looks to be an issue of mental health and sanity. When all you have is a scientific framework, everything looks to be a question of ignorance and knowledge. None of these inheritances, it should be pointed out, have proven themselves capable of providing a properly proportionate response to the ecological crisis.

A proper education will provide students with a bit of knowledge about each of these subjects, all in the context of history and literature so they appreciate the relative nature of current knowledge by understanding a little bit about what changes and what stays the same in the human saga. Education feeds subjectivity. This education is also necessary if we are to avoid bringing a knife to a gun fight, as it were. What we are facing today is complicated. Students, and we are all students, need to be given access to a full set of cognitive tools to use in their ongoing work of making sense of the world and their place in it. Reason and imagination working well together mirror the mind and body working harmoniously. Metaphor and symbol then serve the human being. The only other option is to lose ourselves, lose our souls, in maelstroms of madness; bewitched and enchanted by our own symbolic productions.

Concern about ecology has taught me to be wary of all the belief systems that exalt an unknowable state they claim awaits us after death when it is at the expense of allowing reason to rule their believer’s day to day lives. Too many true believers in bomb vests and tanks have clouded our vision with their noisy insistence that their cause is God’s. I am moved by my fellow humans who are so effected by the pain and suffering they encounter that they insist we must not live this way. I agree with them this far, I share their concern and their compassion. Where I cannot go is where they take the next step into violence, where they paint the whole universe black and seek a Gnostic deliverance from it in a future utopia. With the red gleam of angry fanaticism in their eyes, they claim to be certain about things no man can be certain about; be it the future of mankind on earth or its future in “heaven and hell.” They can kill or torture without qualm to bring about the final kingdom of peace; be it religious or secular.

These true believers torture and abuse other people in a psychological reaction formation because they must repress the awareness of their own body’s vulnerability at any cost. The helplessness and humiliation of the hurt child within is just too much for their ego to bear, it would shatter at the revelation. Living in the mental dogma castles they have inherited, or built, leaves them without a sensory feedback mechanism by which they might write some reality checks. This might seem to be ideal for a society that worships unemotional objectivity as much as ours, but in fact they have cut themselves off from the mind-body processes by which love and compassion, understanding and true friendships are recognized as real. These are the powers that can see an ego through its major transformations of death and rebirth. When they are lacking, as they are for children who did not have an empathetic witness during their years of suffering, the terrors and fears involved can seem infinite.

We laughingly acknowledge psychopaths among us rise to become CEOs and politicians. This may prove to be distinctly unfunny.

Somewhere on the spectrum between individual relationships with bullies and assholes on one side, and societal relationships with mass murdering dictators and corporation’s economic hit men on the other, lies the future we are creating for ourselves. It does not have to be this way. We could, like parents once abused as children who work to heal that abuse, find that the ability to express what is real about our pain in adult conversation heals us of our symptoms. We could, as a society, become mindful of ecology. It lacks the flash of magical thinking, yet offers the comfort of the real. We could begin to discuss the full implications of what it entails instead of being satisfied with a few headlines and sound bites. That adult conversation would include the full weight of the emotional, spiritual and political aspects of our human predicament.

Make no mistake. What we intuitively fear might be happening, is happening. There is a real world out beyond our ubiquitous 2D screens. The nightmares of history have once again turned their attention to the fortunes of the over-developed world. Though there are echoes of “Never Again” reverberating among us, they ring without resonance so far. After all, in a cold and uncaring universe, what do a few genocides and species extinctions matter, right?

I think it is time we recognize the consequences of the ideologies that paint the universe black. Democracy has an element of the utopian. It inspires reform movements and the hope that education will improve the lives of human beings and the societies in which they live. Seeing just how far we are from a just society can drive people into the arms of utopian dreams that are much less in keeping with the nature of man and his social relations. Then the temptation to try to remake the world in the image of an ideological utopia can become irresistible. A revolution led to the founding of the United States. A revolution also led to the terrors of Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin. . .

We  have been unclear about who the real enemies of our species are. We have been scapegoating people, projecting the demonic Other onto the other tribe. This has blinded us to the mind-body traps to which we are prone. The things that can drive us to madness under a civilized veneer are the double binds created by traumatic abuse. The good news is that these are knots that can be undone; undone with the sword of intellect guided by the heart. Individuals learn the skill all the time. Whether it takes the human species ten years, or ten hundred thousand to finally recognize this clearly and use it to our advantage, the truth remains.

May you have good contemplations.

Self Evident

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
United States Declaration of Independence


What does it mean for a truth to be self evident? Perhaps the better question is actually what does it mean that a truth can be self evident?  It is simple really; “we have no choice but to believe what we understand” Matthew Stewart explains in Nature’s God. Put this way it hardly seems such an obnoxious idea, almost a truism. But this is not the case. This is another concept from the radical philosophy held by our Deist founding fathers. It has to do with the nature of the mind.

Rene Descartes proposed an absolute skepticism as the foundation of modern western philosophy. He asked what if a demon had created this entire universe to deceive us. In that case we could trust nothing reported by the senses. How would we ever know what was real and what was a delusion? He (in)famously concluded the only certainty available to a human being is the conceptual mind; “I think, therefore I am.”

Notice the assumption here about the nature of the self or what we would call today a theory of the mind. The philosophical question he is struggling to answer is what is real about our experience. He brings to the investigation his possibly heretical Christian assumptions of an individual soul which is somehow situated above the manifest universe; it can judge whether the whole of our embodied experience it is true or otherwise. He has come a long way from the traditionally incarnational thought of previous Christian thinkers. Though it may not be obvious, in his thought experiment he sits in judgment over the whole of existence by assuming that human consciousness is the only really alive personhood in an otherwise dead material universe. Remember Descartes also bequeathed our belief that animals are no more than clever machines.

Daniel Dennett was among the first to provide a thoroughly modern critique of a theory of mind he aptly described as a Cartesian Theater. Though the title does not well represent the actual contents, Dennett’s Consciousness Explained is a very important read for those interested in consciousness as it is being thought about in academic settings under the influence of the neurosciences of our times. The Cartesian Theater is a descriptive term for this theory of mind commonly attributed to Descartes. In Descartes’ view the mind is somewhat like a multi-screen movies theater where an inner eye scans pictures, mental images. In this view ideas are no more than immaterial things (!) and we are free to choose among them as we will.

By this view of the mind there is no inherent attributes of the ideas themselves that could assure us we are not being fooled by the demon of Descartes famous doubt; the demon he postulated was capable of producing a world of illusion by fooling all our senses. What Descartes saw was that there is no way to leave our private movie theater and check on things; we can never, ever know if what we know is true. There is an absolute skepticism here which, as Stewart points out, seems to demand an unqualified leap of faith.

Daniel Dennett demolishes the picture-theory of mind nine ways to Sunday. It turns out we may not know how consciousness works in cutting edge neuroscience but we are quite sure it does not work like this. One of his more colorful critiques is also as easy to understand as it is profound. He asks about this eye in the middle of the theater which he names a homunculus to capture the image of the little controller in our head this picture-theory of the mind needs.

MIBWhat is telling the homunculus what to believe? It must have an even smaller homunculus, complete with its own movie theater, in its own head. Of course this second, smaller homunculus will need an even smaller third one in its head and so on, right down the hall of mirrors in an infinite regress. Dennett points out there can be no such self sitting in the center of the head calling the shots. Neuroscience supports this conclusion; although an executive center of the brain has been tentatively identified, its characteristics are not quite what we might suppose. As far as we can tell there is no central location in the brain. What we see instead is that every thought involves numerous areas of the brain simultaneously; recall our discussion of the grandmother neuron. What this leads us to do is reconsider the ontological status of those things we are aware of due to the brain’s processing.

There are mysteries here no science of our age has begun to unravel. The soul as Descartes understood it may not have stood up to later critique but the relationship between seemingly immaterial conscious experience and the brain’s neural biology is far from understood. However, there are interesting avenues of query that might restore the value to an embodied mind and even the older intuition behind the incarnational speculations. Modernity’s relativism assigns meaning to human thought alone, what you think is true for you can be true for you but may not be for me. This might be a profound misunderstanding of the nature of things. Our experience might not be a simple anything-goes affair dependent only on our human predilections. It might very well depend on the organization of the planet as a whole. These speculations have been called the ecology of mind or the embodied mind theories.

“We have no choice but to believe what we understand.” Stewart provides us with a vivid metaphor for the difference in views here. We tend to think of our minds, he says, as a jar full of marbles which are all the ideas we have. Consciousness is the jar, the container holding this endless parade. The radical philosophy simply asserts there is no jar. The ideas themselves, the interplay of patterns in the neuron soup, that is all there is. But this interplay of patterns is not random.

Brains evolved to adapt to their environment.

This is another truism hard to really grasp the full implications of because we are sure we already get it. Consider this – the environment of every human being who has ever lived has never contained a god or demon walking around as real as you or I. Nor will you ever shake hands with an ideology. We find these in the conceptual mind, nowhere else. This doesn’t deny the possibility of visionary experiences, other classes of beings and all that. It simply puts such things squarely where the evidence from the daily life of people for eons insists it belongs.

Here in the world beyond the conceptual labels we manufacture, everything which makes an impression upon our body carries with it an inherent, shall we say, reflexivity; it states its own form of being. It is its own evidence.

That which makes what is real, seem real to us – that is what we should learn to bow down to. If we did we would immediately awaken to a world full of ignorant abuse at every turn, for the ecological reality of our situation has grown dark. We lost sight of the fact that what we need is not much more than simply food, clothing, and shelter if we have joyful companionship and a way to contribute to the well being of our self and others. We have become so enamored with our conceptual gymnastics that as a species we are at risk of losing the ability to provide this simple food, simple clothing and simple shelter for ourselves.

This is a molecular world, everywhere the truth of it is self evident. The industrialized culture has not been dealing with it very skillfully. The conceptual abstractions through which we conduct our economics and politics have placed us at risk of not recognizing what is self evident; namely that what cannot be sustained, will not be sustained.

Instead of the absolute Descartes skepticism we could adopt a great certainty in the self evident truths we discover in the moment by moment reality of this life.

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. 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.

We are the Path

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.
Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that has been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.
This is not her story.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams


Douglas Adams has shared a diagnosis I tend to agree with. It seems to me that the ecological crisis is a reflection of the fact that most people are basically miserable. Deep down inside they seem to think that this whole life-thing is a rip off. We behave as though our disappointments outweigh our gratitude. To not put too fine a point on it, as a species we are acting as if we were suicidally depressed. There is very little contentment, we are suffering a plague of poverty mentality that spends most every thought worrying we don’t have enough and scheming how we are going to get more. Being afraid to embrace our nakedness, we coat ourselves with character armors and go to battle with one another, with the earth, and with life itself.

Too dramatic? Ask yourself when was the last time you truly felt safe, secure, loved and appreciated, happy just to be, happy with things just the way they are, able to let tomorrow take care of itself? When was the last time you spent a day playing by a riverside, in a forest or on a mountain? Do you spend time exquisitely aware of the multitude of means by which the whole of this biosphere – all these countless sentient beings – are working to provide for you, sustain you, teach you and inspire you?

This widespread ailment of poverty mentality is sad, sad but not tragic since what is made by human beings can be unmade by human beings. It is not a cosmic law that insists that we run breathless every day in manic desperation to try and earn a glimmer of security from which we might gain a small taste of joy. Biological imperatives and social conformities need not ultimately define who we are. Awash in an environmental assault on contentment in an attempt to sell you stuff, it is still possible to remain unhooked. It just takes some skill in working with the equipment evolution has designed for us.

For the last few months we have been exploring this biological equipment, inquiring into how it is being used to process awareness within our species. This equipment is the real material we are given to work with as each and every one of us navigates the choices which make up our lives. Each and every one of us are participating equally in the manifestation of our species and its extended phenotypes – including the cars and power plants that just delivered the hottest month on record and the funny money systems currently groaning under the weight of central bank shenanigans.

One of the many things a contemplative learns is how there is a bodily component to every thought and feeling. The biological systems we have been examining these last few weeks offer a scientific ground for why. The kink in the neck or the throbbing in the temple, tenseness of the jaw or flexibility of of the spine are all going to be accompanied by mental impressions as well. Typically there is too much distraction from the external world to notice these physiological correlates but in the quite of a contemplative session the connections become more obvious.

The image of the human being as a stick figure was discussed back in April. This childhood artifact is almost all head with very little body. It was said that this “stick figure impoverishment” is how many of us spend most of our self-aware time, all wrapped up in our own heads. Yet we have seen that the flotsam of thoughts and feelings that we are conscious of rides on a deep set of roots reaching into the whole of the nervous system. In reality our thinking is not the isolated, ethereal, disconnected thing it seems to be but is actually a fundamental reflection of causes and conditions. Thinking provides another angle on the same single reality that is the relationship of container and contained, awareness and its environment.

With training people are able to occupy the present moment ever more completely. When the mind is not distracted by plans and worries on the one hand or daydreams and fantasies on the other, it can experience a relaxed focus on the present moment. There are countless details of the present moment that can serve as gates into a fuller experience. There is a texture to the atmosphere and the shapes of things defined by edges sharp or smooth and both carry an emotional tone, there is a type of color beyond color that tints the flesh of other human beings and an echo within the sounds of the world, to mention a few as I would try to wrap words around them.

Don’t settle for just the skull’s contents. Claim the brain stem, spinal column and wing-like weaving of its nerve cords as part of your inheritance as well. This is what is moving through space and time. This is the vehicle you are and the path you will traverse.

The discussions of the last few months have been providing contextual background for the topic of compassion which we will be taking up in the next cycle of posts. The contextual material began by examining our desire to know the future, a desire more than a few investors are experiencing rather acutely this week as the Dow Jones and the S&P are on track for their worse monthly loses in six years. We then took up the question of what tomorrow in our land might actually look like if we allow ourselves to be guided by the idea that techno-utopia or apocalyptic scenarios. A question that has grown weightier throughout the course of the summer as drought and wildfires broke records, racial violence flared and Caesar posturing among the presidential candidates reached new lows.

The importance and purity of intention and the difficulty of thinking about the big issues of our time were then addressed before launching into a series of posts about evolution. Our examination of evolution, both collectively in adaptations and individually in the studies of evo-devo, has been to supply us with a minimum common understanding. There were detours into a few of the contingent biological and physiological details of how evolutionary factors have played out and the resulting systems that were fashioned.

We looked at the role of cooperation in addition to competition in the game of survival of the fittest and found there is more than a little evidence to indicate our capitalist, winner take all, devil take the hindmost, interpretation of Darwin is nothing more than a caricature of the complexities involved in the real biospheric relationships among species and their environments. After examining the evolution of thought and feeling we turned our attention to the manipulation of these by the sophisticated advertising and PR industries living vampire-like off the collective mind.

This opened the way for a discussion of the mind and the brain. Learning about how there are functional parts and pieces in our mental lives illustrated how contemplative work might proceed. It also brought up the question about how all these parts and pieces might work together which was answered by illustrating the power of connections to implement logic around embodied information. As a sort of summary of the whole cycle, last week took up the important role of the spinal column in our human form and our spiritual traditions.

Some familiarity with the details of evolution, cognitive science and neuroscience seem helpful for anyone engaged in contemplative practices or concerned about the ecological unraveling. Without this shared context discussions that recommend the development of compassion can sound like no more than a new twist on the old time gospel hour; preachy, stuffy and full of ethical morality being sold by hypocrites. It is my hope that this whole misunderstanding can be avoided by positioning our upcoming discussion squarely in a realm more akin to the aeons of deep time and the vastness of deep space or at the very least within the matrix of mystery we humans actually are; the matrix of DNA, biology, planetary formation and consciousness that define us.

Yes, we are concerned with the development of character and yes, thoughts and feelings do not just arise out of nowhere. Now we will begin contemplating what it means that the thoughts and feelings of other sentient beings are just as real to them as yours are to you.

This post started with a quote from Douglas Adams and I would like to close it with a comment from another Adams, Patch Adams. In a conversation concerning his work with children badly burned by bombs in war zones Patch said, “You know, there is no high as high as truly helping someone.” In his eye was reflected both the pain and the twinkle he is well known for.

We are setting our sights on destroying an illusion, the illusion that we are an ego in isolation. We will be working on trading in our poverty mentality for the inconceivable wealth of the inner riches of charity.

Making Connections

“No, intelligence does not come from a special kind of spirit or matter or energy but from a different commodity, information. Information is a correlation between two things that is produced by a lawful process (as opposed to coming about by sheer chance). We say that the rings of a stump carry information about the age of the tree because their number correlates with the tree’s age (the older the tree, the more rings it has), and the correlation is not a coincidence but is caused by the way trees grow. Correlation is a mathematical and logical concept; it is not defined in terms of the stuff that the correlated entities are made of.
Information is nothing special; it is found wherever causes leave effects. What is special is information processing.”
How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker (italics in original)


Information provides a middle way of understanding human intelligence. It does not rely on a ghost in the machine nor on a special form of fantasy matter that secretes mind. Information theory recognizes that all information needs to be embodied in some configuration of matter, which removes the ghost that has haunted Western philosophy, religion and science for centuries. Information theory recognizes that the particular configuration of materials is able to act as a symbol; its physical representation also carries meaning, that ethereal spook, by representing a true correlation between real states of affairs.

A symbol can stand for something, like the age of a tree, yet also has additional physical characteristics e.g. absorbs water and reflects light. Now here is the trick, the key piece of the explanatory power of the information theory of mind: imagine we build a machine that is sensitive to the physical characteristics of the symbol. A clever arrangement of light sensors, levers, maybe a magnet or two, and a pen could produce a contraption that makes a mark for every tree ring it encounters. It “reads” the arrangement of matter in one place and “writes” the results into another chunk of matter. Cause and effect is happening in this chain of events being executed by this dumb machine.

In special step two we decide to interpret the output in terms of the input, we count the pen marks and interpret them as the age of the tree stump. Subtle isn’t it? Those marks were not directly caused by the growth of any tree yet they carry an informational correlation. Take the same contraption and scan another nearby, smaller stump. Again marks are made. If we now compare the first and second set of marks we discover the age the original tree was when the second, smaller tree was planted. Our contraption is a kind of rational machine capable of drawing true conclusions from true premises.

No need for special matter or energy, nothing but the correct arrangement of parts, none of which are overtly rational or intelligent in themselves. The symbol unites the ability of carrying information with the ability to cause things to happen according to that information. In this case the rings correlate with the age of the tree and they trigger the beam of the light scanner. In the case of a neuron the action potential carries information, in that it is either firing or not, and the physical side might be that it terminates in a skeletal muscle cell and causes behavior.

When the output also contains information we have an information processor. In the case of our contraption the marks embody the age of the tree. Alan Turing designed a machine as a thought experiment that could produce correspondences between inputs and outputs. He was able to prove that any algorithm can be implemented on one of these Turing machines. These rational machines are of course ubiquitous today when we have computers everywhere. It is not at all hard for us to understand it is possible to build a machine that can take input symbols, operate on them and produce output symbols that “mean” something to us.

This pedestrian demonstration of the power of symbols we find in our computing devices is worth contemplating in light of the metaphysical puzzles that seem to obscure our ability to understand consciousness. How can the immaterial interact with the material? One camp insists only the material world is real and consciousness is a kind of illusion. The other camp insists only mind can be primarily real since it is what we most centrally experience and cannot conceivably interact with anything that is not mind. The symbol stands with a foot in both camps.

Not surprising for anyone familiar with the history of ideas that it was not long before the computer metaphor was being applied to the workings of the brain. In Rome where aqueducts represented cutting edge technology the mind and body were full of fluid-like humors. When electricity and steam were the cutting edge of mechanical engineering it was easy for Freud and others to liken the workings of body and mind to pressures building up, where good people had to keep a lid on it or else they might blow their top. With computers as the latest technology its metaphors were applied, likely with no more staying power then their intellectual predecessors.

The computational theory of mind is not postulating that the human brain works like a computer, which is a mistake numerous early researchers made, but that the human brain is capable of performing computations. The computations being referred to are not just the mathematical operations of addition, subtraction, differentiation, integration and the rest but also logical operations such as greater than or lesser than.

How can a brain do it? The brain is mostly a vastly complex collection of neurons whose defining characteristic is their ability to make connections with other cells, including other neurons. These connections are made through the synapses by using neurotransmitters. This is a subject worth exploring in detail for contemplatives but for today’s purpose suffice it to say that the neuron is capable of making a basic choice between firing or not firing a signal to its partner neuron. This is somewhat similar to the ones and zeros we hear about in computer science where an element in an electronic circuit can be either on, represented as 1 or off which is represented as 0.

In one common arrangement of neuronal connections there are a number of input neurons feeding their signals into a single target neuron. The target neuron is capable of summing these many inputs and only if their input strength reaches a particular level will that target neuron fire its signal in turn. The target signal will then become one input for the next target neuron in the chain in the same way.

It is said that the target neuron integrates the synaptic signals. This is like the summation behind the integration found in the Calculus; animal nervous systems embody an integration capability.

To understand the power of connections in this context it might help to take a moment to look at the simplified logic circuits of the computer’s CPU. The basic neuron toolbox consists of signals that can either fire or not which is determine by the types of input signals they receive. These functional building blocks are also sufficient to sketch rational symbol manipulations into silicon.

The design of the computer’s CPU has taught us about the ability electrical circuits to act as logical operators. In both computer science and logic these operators consist of AND, OR, and NOT (the XOR and NAND gates need not concern us here). A truth table is used to illustrate the results of these operators where the 1 stands for on and the 0 for off. The logic circuits only acquire the ability to act due to the results of the integration of the input signals.

TruthTablesNOT: If the input signal is 1 the output signal is 0, if input is 0 then output is 1. In words; if input is on then signal off, if input is off then signal on.

AND: If and only if both input signal A is 1 and input signal B is 1 then output is 1. In words; if A and B are on then signal on but if only A or only B is on or neither A nor B are on, then signal off. AND gates can have more than two input signals.

OR: If and only if input signal A is 1 or input signal B is 1 but not both, then the output is 1. In words; if A is on or B is on but not both A and B is on, then signal on. OR gates can have more than two input signals.

This is probably elementary to many but it illustrates a very important point. These circuits are so simple they can be wired up on a breadboard in a few minutes yet they are implementing logical operations. Let that sink in. These wires, configured in these ways are capable of some form of “thinking” or “intelligence.” More accurately, they are capable of properly manipulating information symbols, with properly being defined as the way human logic proceeds in valid thinking.

Nervous systems are implementing something along the lines of these types of circuits. Using the building blocks of logic they are capable of effectively implementing If – Then – Else logic in order to control behavior.

Evolution favored the use of the nervous system throughout the animal kingdom because it enhances the repertoire of possible responses to the environment. Remember Pavlov’s dog that Skinner took as the paradigm of all learning? Pavlov starved the dog and then rang a bell each of the few times he fed it. Eventually the dog would salivate as soon as it heard the bell, whether or not food was forthcoming. These facts were explained as an association having been formed between the auditory signal of the bell and the anticipated relief of starvation. What more could be expected from a ‘dumb animal’?

Instead of a fixed set of responses like the older, behaviorist theory of associations between stimulus and response – the definition of crazy is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome – the new paradigm recognizes the same associational behaviors as “multivariate, nonstationary time series analysis (predicting events will occur, based on their history of occurrences).” (Pinker 1997) It is not that we humans are lucky enough to have souls and animals are somehow animated bricks. It is that the mind-matter symbol manipulations are shared by all sentient beings with the differences being the number of connections available and how they are structured, not a difference of kind.

The new model finds a place for beliefs and desires which the behaviorists tossed out. When we watch an insect or an eagle it is not hard to describe their behavior in terms of belief and desire: the eagle wanted to eat and believed the field it is scanning would turn up a meal. The behaviorists objected to the use of belief and desire in a so-called scientific psychology because they could not be seen nor measured. Before an understanding of symbols it was not clear how meaning, the contents of beliefs and desires, could be the cause or result of anything. Now we can understand how a chain of symbols might work. The physical properties of the symbol cause processing whose output is another symbol with further processing of its physical properties until the target is a muscle cell and behavior results. Or run the chain the other way as a sensory input arrives in the nervous system transduced from its original physical form – light, sound, heat, pressure, frequency – it starts the symbol chain that might end up in a thought, ‘my, the sunset is gorgeous tonight.’

Patterns matter. The same alphabet can be found in every book written in English. It is the pattern of letters and the words they make that turns one book into Shakespeare and another into Newton. It is the same thing in the nervous system where the pattern of how the neurons are connected creates an enormous space of potential information processing procedures. “Minute differences in the details of the connections may cause similarly looking brain patches to implement very different programs.” (Pinker 1997)

The rule for the nervous system connections seems to be, use it or lose it. Connections that are used frequently grow stronger while connections used rarely will atrophy. We know now that the brain is highly plastic, it is constantly creating and destroying connections as well as adjusting the electrochemical signals the neurons are exchanging. On one level this is what our contemplative training is all about. Strengthening our skills with in meditation is reworking our minds, literally.