The Church of Child Abuse, part one

“People don’t you understand
the child needs a helping hand
or he’ll grow to be an angry young man someday.
Take a look at you and me
are we to blind to see?
Or do we simply turn our heads
and look the other way?”
Mac Davis, In The Ghetto

“Psychological maltreatment, also known as emotional abuse and neglect, refers to ‘a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or extreme incident(s) that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting another’s needs.'”
A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice
quoting Hart & Brassard Psychosocial evaluation of suspected psychological
maltreatment in children and adolescents: APSAC practice guidelines

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”


This essay deals with childhood spiritual abuse, it may not be appropriate for all readers.

First I would like to say a word about where I see this work around religious subjects fitting into the context of the concerns those mindful of ecology have. I see no way to gain religion’s support for healing the rupture between earth and humankind, than to call out its dark side for what it is. It could well be that as the collapse of Homo Colossus proceeds people will eventually turn on the institutions and traditions that failed to help the human race in its hour of need. The political, religious, and educational institutions have all, so far at least, utterly failed to take the seriousness of our overshoot predicament seriously. Of these institutions only religious traditions speak directly to the question of whether we find ourselves in a universe worth living in or not. Since we are collectively acting suicidally, it is an important question. If the die-off due to ecological collapse proceeds as expected between now and the year 2100, as the costs mount and the wars rage, the question of whether or not self-conscious awareness is worth the price will live in people’s hearts, not as an academic question but as one deciding between life and death. Mainstream society today is incapable of realistically imagining the next few decades as the ecologists have sketched out their most probable trajectories. Instead, the mainstream society swings from total denial (“Power Through Impossible” the oil industry teaches us) by the Wall Street crowd on the one hand, to denial that it matters (on “The Late Great Planet Earth”) by the Christian Rapture crowd on the other. I believe both positions are mistaken and that this will become obvious to everyone eventually. As one ugly year continues to follow another, and another, and another… eventually we can expect a type of psychological tipping point when denial and repression, fantasy and wishful thinking no longer work to paper over the very real disasters eating away at our stable climate and food supplies. I am interested in how mythology, and the religions of today that have institutionalized bits of it, will fare at that time. There is great strength to be found in faith for dealing well with difficult times. Faith believes this is a good life in a basically good universe. It is a message all but lost by those who “do the work of satan while they dress like saints” as Bowie had it. Perhaps religion can be purged from the lies and liars currently spreading little more than confusion in its name. That, anyway, is my hope. There is a role for contemplatives in Dark Ages, perhaps we should use this time to prepare what we can. We need to learn how to stand up and say NO to god as bully.

The title of this essay could be misunderstood. I do not think we can say this religion is right and this religion is wrong. I do believe we can say, if we are humble and careful, that this way of being religious is right and that this other way of being religious is wrong. This is an important step forward. We need to call a spade a spade to understand the dark side of religion.

This is not to say all religions are equal, far from it. I do think some religious ideas are inherently dangerous, meaning that believing in them will lead you astray, away from a meaningful human life. One such, with relevant dangers for a nuclear armed world under accelerating ecological collapse, is the ancient belief that humans can gain favor with god, immortality, and magical powers by shedding the blood of others, typically children – be it on altars or battlefields. I consider Frazer’s Golden Bough, particularly the newer abridgement, required reading for anyone interested in religion, as indispensable in its own way as William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.

Religious indoctrination that amounts to little more than sewing double binds to trap minds into fear-based loyalty to god’s self-proclaimed and self-selected salesmen is wrong. In fact, from the point of view of the precious uniqueness of each sentient being, that mysterious something we call a personality and recognize to likely be unique across all of deep time, it might be the most wrong of the wrongs human beings can commit. When this happens religion has then enslaved a human bodymind, through the creation of trauma, with the purpose of demanding their allegiance to institutionalized abstractions, in place of an allegiance to their actual life as it is given to them to experience it. Possessed, souls enchanted, they may come to the end of their days only to discover that who they personally were never really fully showed up in their own life, that the potentials of the little boy or little girl they once were had been buried alive under ceaseless role playing.

“Let the children to come unto me.”

Life is hard. Religious stories are meant to aid us, strengthening us to meet the inevitable tragedies of our lives and carry on with a modicum of peace and joy in-spite of them. They embody the wisdom of how self-consciously mortal creatures can walk with dignity through well lived lives. Many of the lessons in our religious stories deal with very adult issues related to suffering, death, evil, and loss. Here is the rub. The stories are necessarily first introduced into the minds of children who are incapable of fully and properly understanding them. Knowing this causes us to seek means of correcting this error without compounding it (Eggs and Santa). We say the faith of childhood must be replaced with that of adulthood. There is a lot of psychology packed into that phrase. It involves enthroning reason above imagination and the day consciousness of the ego and its survival goals above the night consciousness and its labrythian meanderings. It is as if we were born upside down. With great care biology and society prepares the bodymind of the child as if it were an egg shell that will break to allow the adult to emerge. Religious symbolism plays a part in that preparation because it is intimately linked to our physiology.

The bodymind of the child, and of the older people around them, know that soon the all the powerful force of evolutionary deep time’s engine is going to awaken in their crotch. When that happens it will turn their upside down world right side up, and do so by turning their childhood ego upside down, humbling it in the process. It involves the ego learning what it must serve, which is so much more than only reproduction as evolutionary theory would have it, but never is it separate from the obligations of reproduction either. Ego is confronted with its unexpected responsibility: that it has a soul to care for as it works its way along its path to a grave, that it is involved in a mind and body that is one in thought and feeling.

It is a real struggle to set aside the magical thinking of our childhood and accept the evidence of our senses that those we love, and we ourselves, must die. Though our stories are filled with tales of immortality and spirits soaring among the stars sustained by magical powers, our lives are inevitably lived, in fact, with our feet on the ground. An adult fundamentalist simply cannot believe with the same naivety that a child can. This I think is what many well meaning adults do not understand and it causes considerable unnecessary tragedy. We should also understand this as a society better than we do. It could put it this way: when it comes to “faith,” the child will walk off a metaphorical cliff, whereas a non-psychotic adult will suddenly find the power of rationalization and be overcome with a sudden bout of common sense under the same circumstances. The adult’s reaction may not be a stellar example of making sense, but it will make sense in a way the mind of the child simply cannot before it has been restructured into the adult brain. We see there is a spectrum of the literalism error, with children taught deceptively occupying the farthest outpost.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to sin, it would be better for him if a great milestone were put around his neck and they were thrown into the sea.”

Children of the human race are voracious story sponges. Brains building life long scaffoldings are calling the shots from deep time in all the little people around us. This process is vulnerable to traumatic events that can thwart the intended outcomes. It is obvious that children are vulnerable physically. What we have learned by studying the psyche is that they are emotionally and cognitively vulnerable as well. Children who have had their vulnerability exploited, far beyond the necessary lessons around our innate gullibility, have brains altered by the trauma they have known. Life long brain changes become linked to their destiny, their fate. Instead of the egg of adult personality being broken by the emerging psyche from the inside in its own good time, some clumsy oaf has broken into it with all the gracefulness of a jackhammer.

Deep time has hosted traumatized human brains since the beginning and has ways of dealing with the disproportionate fear and terror their unhinged imaginations can cause. Those shamanistic ways are symbol rich because they must deal with the underlying physiological “tensions” traumatic events have anchored in the body. Symbols, as we have discussed, turn one side towards conscious understanding but the other side remains oriented towards the dark depths of biological intelligence. Ego can communicate with what is beyond ego in this way and, in that sense, religious symbols play an indispensable role in the formation of the human psyche.

What, then, is religious child abuse? How do we talk about crossing the line between the religious education of children and religious child maltreatment? Does religious child abuse always involve sexual or physical abuse as well? No. Does it always involve strange satanic rituals? No. Does religious child abuse always involve emotional abuse? Yes. An internet search on the term ‘spiritual abuse’ will turn up numerous definitions, many quite good, others just fodder in the atheism wars. Here are a few of my thoughts to add to the mix.

Religious Abuse is creating serious mental health issues in the name of God. Or, to state the same thing in the language we used before psychology: creating serious wounds in the soul, damning it on earth to a life of confusion, self-destructive behaviors, and inescapable terror filled nightmares, all of which steal any chance at unscarred happiness that person may have had in the one and only life that personality will ever know.

The Trauma God:
Let me introduce you to the god of the evil cosmos we touched on last week. It appears when we worship god as trauma: life twisting, joy destroying trauma. This is not a god of Love but a god of Hate, forever angry at you every minute of your life and “justly” looking forward to watching you suffer in hell for all eternity. He (and it is a ‘He’ and only a ‘He’)  hosts an eye in the sky watching your every move, recording and never forgetting or forgiving your every slipup of an obscure rule set, one less clear than the accusations against Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial. Oh, and he knew you were predestined to your fate of eternal torture before he created you, which he did because he loves you. What a crock of shit. This is nothing more than a thin veneer on the ultimate “I am doing this for your own good” abuser fantasy.

A meaningless universe created purely by chance is preferable to this malignant nightmare. At least in a meaningless universe although love might be delusional it is not sickly twisted and, importantly, I get to roll my own dice. A meaningless universe created purely by chance is just the universe science posits, as it turns out, perhaps in no small part as a reaction to this Gnostic heresy gaining such ground among the fundamentalist fringes both within and without the mainstream monotheisms. Faith in the non-trauma god is, of course, a belief in a good universe where what love teaches us about its innermost workings is seen as worthy of our trust. Those who have suffered religious abuse biologically believe in this trauma god and its universe, their bodymind learned from the evidence of the abusive experiences that their life in the world will only lead to days of more suffering and pain without hope of healing or redemption. Such hurt people are, in my experience, best off spending some years away from all religions. They need to learn to go play as if god had said only one commandment: “go, and be happy.” The scientific point of view of a neutral universe can bring considerable healing and freedom from the superstitious fears that have been planted in the unconscious mind of those who were enslaved to the trauma god’s evil universe like this. The jump from evil universe to good universe is too much to take in one leap if you bring your integrity with you. Where was this so-called good god when your soul was crushed and skewered? Only time has the real balm for those hurts because in time you will be able to trace how the wound becomes a gift of character (assuming it does not destroy you during the transformation process).

Religious Abuse is using religious imagery to unhinge the reasoning mind, remove emotional balance, and create physiological anchors that trigger panic anytime the victim begins to question the truth of the cultic dogma, the authenticity of the cultic authority, or in any other way attempts to leave the cult. The core of spiritual child abuse is seeding the child’s mind with fear of their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations. Ultimately, the evil in this abuse aims to interfere with an individual’s unique sense of conscience about what is right and wrong, “the still small voice.” The natural understanding our mammalian bodies are born with, knowing how to feed the personality on the nourishment of love and compassion, is changed into a fear of the same. Hate is offered as love. To believe what you are told as a victim of such confusion, that what you are experiencing is love, is to create a civil war between what your mind thinks and what your body knows.

Religious Abuse is using religion as a scapegoat mechanism. Dysfunctional families tend to choose one member to be the scapegoat, the black sheep. This dynamic already is a difficult one to deal with. Add the self righteousness of a fundamentalist family and the shadow projection onto the one chosen as scapegoat becomes extreme, an extremity poets might capture by calling it a demonic injection. Adults with real problems can displace their unhealed burdens into their children culminating in the creation of the black sheep. The black sheep has been chosen not to succeed in life, to fail spectacularly. That will confirm the white sheep in their faith. The family role of the scapegoat is to display what the rest of the family fears, namely, that a life lived outside the cult is one ruled by demons.

Cruelty on the Cross

As social primates how others react to us is extremely important. Our expressions of ourselves through word and deed are self revealing, leaving us vulnerable to a cruel word or act from others. Since trust cannot be naively extended to strangers, we rely on the defense mechanism of the persona, the mask we wear when we are just going through the motions, as we say. Each of us is able to cover our uniqueness in a cloak of collectively defined characteristics; the jock, the nerd, the rebel, the flirt, the hard hearted businessman, and the cold calculating player of real politic, to name a few. Whatever our chosen mask, for most of us the primary personas are molded into our nervous systems by the time we leave high school. As adults we become adapt at shifting masks as needed.

When the environment is safe and secure, when we can trust the ones around us not to hurt us cruelly, we are able to relax and, as we say, be ourselves. We are fed and nourished in these times as the reflection of ourselves in another’s eyes makes us real; they confirm our own perceptions and expressions. The ear and the tongue evolved together: we are story tellers at heart and love to share with one another. The smile is the ticket to the heartstrings and it plays a fine song, given the chance. We humans laugh, and when the laughter is free of malice, its sound is pure praise celebrating this moment, just as it is. Joyful moments shared with others are memories every human being holds dear.

In the abusive home this environment of safety is missing, so those within its walls are unable to receive the nurturance required by mammals of the social primate flavor. In an overly competitive society, such as ours, there is no external security to be found either. Arguably, everyone in such a society suffers some degree of self alienation, everyone is abused by the worship of cruelty as the final arbiter of power. In our fear, surrounded as we are by so many threats and dangers, we find it hard to take off our masks; to relax, safe and content. The danger is that then our lives can become little more than circus shows, staged for one another but not lived with one another.

The point, of course, is to live an authentic life. To use the masks, understand them and their role, but never to confuse the mask with the living flesh of the face it covers.

This, I think, is what the Jesus story and the crucifixion is teaching. That is a human face on that cross. It asks us to have compassion on the suffering being displayed. Which is stronger for you, on which will you ultimately place your faith: the cruelty of empire or the compassion of flesh? The Gospels provide just enough detail that we recognize an individual within their pages. On the cross this individual suffers the cruelty of torture, exposing the vulnerability of the flesh, but even more so that of the heart. On the cross Jesus wears no mask. Reality – this cosmic, mysterious thing made by an unknown – is its own balm, a harsh taskmaster at times, but not nearly as cruel as mankind can be to itself when we choose cruelty instead of love. This icon of Christianity teaches us torture hurts, it is wrong. It is a stake in the emotional ground. It may have additional religious meaning also but what I want to point out is it is much more pedestrian than that. It says: this is real, this torture of other human beings, this action is real. And this action is wrong.

Emotion and values are inseparably linked. In our pursuit of value-free greed, we as a people have not had much respect for the inner, subjective life of the emotions. Animals, women and children were all thought to be ruled by their feelings, and hence lesser beings. To accept that what other people feel matters, that how I make them feel matters, is to invite a whole host of values captured in the universal Golden Rule. These threaten the values being used to prop up this consumer society in which status, as conferred by wealth and fame, is held up as the alternative ideal. When the powerful use this view to argue that the values of war are as serviceable for a society as those of compassion, they commit, in my mind, a crime against the truth. We cannot remake ourselves over into the image of our machines; cold, calculating robots capable of pushing the nuclear button without flinching. We are not our own creators.

To be human is to be, first, a mammal. The line of mammals is characterized by a unique trait: they show extended care for their young. From this quite real biological, emotional, and cognitive experience attachment bonds are formed. Mammals come to express care and compassion among themselves their whole life long. Second, we humans are primate mammals, and social primates at that. This means we have evolved around the need to need each other. The individual’s biological, emotional, and cognitive structures are attuned to reading and responding to social signals from others in our tribe.

Christianity is catholic; a message for the species is in the icon of the cross, just as it is in the icon of the meditating Buddha. The cross asks what do you, personally, choose to do about the fact human beings are capable of inflicting torture upon one another? That is the psychological maypole around which we are built. In the icon of the corpus on the cross the mystery is openly displayed. The psyche aligns itself either towards the pole of ‘I will not torture another sentient being whatever the cost,’ or not.

It is important to be clear we are talking about torture: the deliberate desire to inflict maximum pain through cruelty. Arguably all killing is suspect from compassion’s point of view, as the Jains have it, but how can there be an absolute rule when protectors need to execute evil when necessary? Regardless, what soldiers typically do on the battlefield is not the same violation of the integrity of another being’s subjectivity torture entails. Only acts of sexual and sever psychological abuse begin to position themselves on the spectrum of ‘soul violation’ that ends in torture.

The Gospel is about a man who learns to call this creator-mystery, this cosmic force of deep time planted on earth from out of deep space, by the most intimate form of address possible. Though Christianity typically speaks about god the father, Jesus addressed god as daddy, the child’s loving address, as if to teach that this cosmic force by which we were created is to become personalized by our fully becoming human. A task, I might add, no one who has ever lived has ultimately failed at. The teaching is we are not orphans in an uncaring universe, for the very human love we share witnesses otherwise.

Torture rightly frightens the human animal. And so, in the Christian mythology, we are taught by ‘god’ to watch how people use this ability to be so cruel to one another. It is ‘his’ revelation. That cruelty, the teaching goes, kills the god among men.

These evolved traits around compassion are as real in the realm of human experience as gravity is. Our biology, emotions, and cognitions bear witness to our evolved inheritance as mammals of the social primate variety. The devil among us is not a supernatural, magical bogey man. It is the cruelty by which we humans can be lead astray, by which we lose our way.

The Destroyer

And so it has come to this. The basement of the mind, the basement of our times. The journey within the psyche we have been examining includes a final feature that is the subject of today’s post. There, in the depths of what ego is able to encounter and endure, hides a very dangerous feature, one which we do not know all that much about, only that it is really there.

This feature of the mind is why, at least in part, there is a common wisdom in the west about not going too far with introspective practices. We have sayings like this one from the Native Americans, “a man loses himself in the blacks of his eyes,” or the half-comic characterization of meditation as “navel gazing” which implies it is nothing more than an adult attempting to get back into the womb ala Freud. St Anthony, the first Christian contemplative, goes out into the desert and is immediately set upon by Satan. The Tibetan meditative tradition has a very rich array of fierce Buddhas reflecting what they found when they went inside. We have been using shamanism as a model for these things.

A destroyer hides in our subjectivity.

One model of therapy I find cognizant names the parts of the psyche, recognizing that there is an Internal Family System within (IFS). The part of the psyche we are concerned with here is at the end of a spectrum of inner critics. The spectrum begins with the perfectionist within, that part that has very high standards for performance, behavior and production. When we do not measure up to its dictates it attacks us by insisting our work or behavior is not good enough. Under its influence what we do fails to nourish our sense of self worth because it seems as if it is never quite measures up. Each of us has this critic part of ourselves which we need to learn to deal with. Some people have had incidents in their lives, particularly childhood incidents, which makes this perfectionist within a major burden, but none escape completely unscathed. People in highly competitive cultures, such as our own, find the energy of our ‘Can Do’ drive is often and easily diverted towards this less than helpful delusion that we could one day be perfect. You know the drill: the right partner, church, job, house, car, clothes, friends, and all the rest the squawk box goes on and on about endlessly, will make out lives happy and everyone will like us, if only we would listen to the helpful advertisers treating us to their arcane knowledge about how best to spend what money we do have.

The perfectionist can become a bit more adamant. They then take on the characteristics of what IFS has called the molder. The molder works to get you to fit into a particular social mold, typically one based on your particular cultural and family mores. It makes you feel good when you fit in but attacks you when you dare to deviate. Notice how the worth of the individual is shifting towards the worth of a more institutionalized interpretation of what an individual should be. The molder wants to remake the world in their image and can brook no deviance. Fundamentalists of every stripe are captivated by the needs and values involved with the molder part of the human psyche. The molder is sure the only safety in this dark and dangerous world is to be found in the special habits of one’s own tribe. All others are heretics. Heretics threatening the very law and order of the cosmos.

Take this desire to remake individuals in the image of a perfect being one more step and the molder turns into the destroyer. The heretic and apostate must be killed. The destroyer is defined as an inner critic that makes attacks on your fundamental self-worth. It uses the weapon of shame. It seeks to persuade you that you should not exist. The perfectionist wants to make you do better in the world, it is simply not all that skillful so all it can do is harp on you about not being good enough until it wises up a bit. The molder wants to help you fit in within the many social aspects of your life. It fears the social isolation complete individual eccentricity creates, it just lacks the skill to communicate helpfully about the dangers it perceives. The destroyer, on the other hand, wants one thing only – to watch you die.

The torture chamber hells are what our imaginations conjure to clothe what we feel in the extremities of suffering. Here we turn on ourselves. The mind lashes out at the body, angry at its vulnerability and mortality. In its imaginative images it chops and burns, cuts and tears away at it until there is nothing left but a bloody, quivering chunk of flesh. Somewhere a frozen witness observes this – and is not fooled by who is who and what is what all along the long chain of karmic causes and effects that has lead up to it. The problem is, that if we do not find the courage to take on the battle within, we are destined to project the destroyer so that it walks among us as cruel injustices: abuse, poverty and war.

It is a sad fact that there are others who would gain a sort of satisfaction with your destruction. No matter who you are, your very existence is an affront to some group or another. When a person’s identity is with a particular group instead of their own self, anyone who lives outside that group is threatening. To see these outsiders destroyed confirms the true believers in their faith. Nations and religions thrive on this projection of the shadow and the creation of scapegoats it entails. Since all of us are individuals, we are bound to cross others and be for them the target of their ‘evil eye.’ That old phrase captures a psychological process whereby the burden of self-destruction is injected into a person as a result of their socialization. Inside our psyches we encounter not only protectors, which look and act fiercely but do so out of compassion and have our best interests at heart. We also encounter destroyers, that 10% of the shadow that is not gold, that is evil pure and simple. The teaching I like around this point is that the universe is only fully interesting and engaging with a devil in it, but we are meant to honor life by keeping a firm foot on its neck. The only karmically correct response when confronted by a destroyer is to thwart their plans, to short circuit their energy, to destroy them in turn by honesty, light, truth and reason. Remember, if you commit suicide, or murder-suicide, the bad guys win.

The tools of the Wrathful Buddhas are surgical, they destroy destroyers. They also accomplish the dismemberment of the shaman. How could it be otherwise in a universe that is wholly interdependent? Those who would venture in the lands of the inner worlds should know not all is sweetness and light there. Our evolutionary roots, while graced with wisdom, are also home to many relatives of the alligator variety.

Earth is a place in which we are all playing the parts of both predator and prey. Both parts in themselves are as pure as mountain streams. In man, however, there exists the ability to get lost in a dream, a world of his own imagining. This is what those bits of common wisdom about the dangers of introspection are warning us about but they, in my opinion, fail to place sufficient weight on the dangers of not working with one’s own mind.

It is true that at some point in every therapeutic treatment there comes a time to let the past be past and move on. In every shaman journey taken to the end the heart is properly placed in the Halls of Judgment. “First,” one of my earliest teachers once told me, “we have to get you right in your heart.” The human heart is to be weighed by the gods with the angels looking on. In other words, it needs to be liberated from the judgments of other people who cannot know you as only you yourself can. Only you know why you did what you did, that you felt what you felt. The heart cannot be given its final judgment by any human being – not by mother or father, not by teacher, priest or prophet. It was said by St. Augustine, “Love god, and do what thou wilt.” This describes the same view – doing what you will takes up your conscious focus and you let others worry about the right and wrong of it. A creature is to deal first with their creator, and it is a profound confusion to think the moms and dads of the world are the final arbiters of that power. It is right to be liberated to do what thou wilt because you lead with your heart, following the truth of love and compassion. To put it yet another way: being in a place of healing involves a real acceptance that you are never going to get all your vices in order before you give your all to life. We have to learn to love the outcasts, the downtrodden and the sorrowful we find within and without. So many of us are caught up in provisional living, snared by some complex or another from really committing 100% to this life just as it is. We act as if this is the dress rehearsal and the real thing is going to start anytime now, just as soon as we get a few things in order…

We do the same thing socially and it is starting to have some serious real world implications: we will stop driving the animals to extinction just as soon as we get good, solid economic growth going again; will leave some clean water for our children to drink just as soon as we get this little problem of a diminishing power supply figured out; will cease overfishing and clear-cutting just as soon as we have paid off our loans. It is the modern modus operandi for all things related to the real ecological burdens our way of life creates.

We as a society have become entranced by scenes of torture and mayhem. We see it everywhere from the short scene in BBC’s Sherlock on Masterpiece Theater, to longer scenes in James Bond films, and on into the depravity of torture porn proper such as we see in the Saw series. The news carries the same things. The real world Texas Chainsaw Massacre like abuse of human beings (women and children, minorities and the poor more often than not it is worth pointing out) haunts us. It is as if we understand that before someone does these kinds of things on the outside, they long ago did the same thing and worse to parts of themselves on the inside. This scares us all. It can literally scare us to death.

Reason sheds its loving light on the search for the destroyer within. The ego’s waking mind can teach this wild imagination of ours the difference between a metaphor and a reality. The truth is that very few people, thankfully, will ever experience first hand the psychological state of extreme duress brought on by being tortured. However, as our “entertainments” are quick to capitalize on, we all share places within where our deepest fears around our fleshy vulnerabilities are imaged through torture in hot and cold hells.

The child wakes up screaming from a nightmare, their head filled with monsters, wild animals, weapons or torture devices attacking them, or any of the other shamanistic idioms. The parent soothes their fright with words of reason; there is no monster in the closet or under the bed. Eventually the child’s mind coalesces around real world fears, such as burglars coming through the windows, covert night visits by sexual predators in the family and other dangers of the real world the child is working so feverishly to understand. Reason is the boon of compassion. It does not go away but greets us again fresh each morning, regardless of what terrors may have visited us in the night. Our reasoning ability needs to teach the rest of the mind its knack for separating what is real from what is poetic, metaphor, exaggeration, or simply thoughts way too extreme to be applicable to the real daytime world as we experience it.

Against the destroyers we bring our protectors. These are every voice we have ever heard and glance we have recorded from the people who have seen who we really are as individuals, not remaining content to encounter just the personas built for the roles we fulfill as needed by some institution or another. Our protectors have seen who we are beneath the character armor and liked it. They hold a revelation it is almost impossible for the hurt parts within to really accept: loving kindness. The protectors act like a cloud of witnesses made up of everyone who has ever encouraged us with a kind word to do our best and be happy with that, as it expresses our own unique brand of Being Human via DNA ™. The protectors assert the rational truth that you have as much right to exist as any other creature that has ever won the DNA lottery. Protectors call destroyers what they are – liars. The devil, the Bible states, has been a liar and a murderer since the beginning. Protectors, on the other hand, defend life and stand firmly on the truth of things. They are warriors which keep the warrior’s honor.

This is in stark contrast to the destroyers. A warrior will not cause his or her opponent’s face to become washed in blood. They will not shame their enemy. That is dishonorable, a despicable act; to fight fair the shame shot is not taken. The willingness to do so is what makes the bully-torturer pathetic in the eyes of a warrior.

And so it has come to this. It is not exactly that we have elected a Bully in Chief, but indisputably President Trump brings a public meanness to the office not seen before. Does President Trump shame those he attacks, or does he stay above the belt and fight fair? Only the victims of his attacks can answer that. We all, however, have a stake in the answer to that question. For a great many things it will come to matter a great deal whether this nation is being led by a warrior in disguise, or a destroyer.

Remaining mindful of ecology we are not given to despair over the shifting fortunes of empires. We have been training in bringing aid to the suffering, under triage conditions, among the two-legged and four-legged for quite some time now. Don’t be fooled by shifting circumstances, big oil doubling down and taking over the apparatus of government, for example. Give it another ten years before drawing any conclusions.

Change would be coming about now, we were told a long time ago. Change was certainly needed; it has become patently obvious that business as usual has no long term future. Well, change is what we’ve got. Let us all pray. Pray with compassion filled hearts for each of the suffering sentient beings on our most precious, rare and beautiful earth. Pray the inevitable death throes of big oil will not be too destructive to that which remains.

I have added a a new page under poetics. It is hoped it might comfort with it’s simple reminder to Go forth and love life.

Propaganda and Advertising

I am of the opinion that the ecological crisis will not be solved by a few adjustments to the tax structure or with the invention of a few greener technologies. The unsustainability in my analysis is systemic because it has its roots in the way we think. It might be hackneyed today to insist with Einstein that you cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it, but it remains true none-the-less. This is why among all the many responses to the ecological crisis that it is possible for an individual to take, it is the development of a contemplative practice that seems most relevant to me. It is also why I think knowing a bit about evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience is very worthwhile.

We live in a culture that is molded and formed by more people educated in the arts of manipulating human behavior than any time in our species history. Ever since Edward Bernayes used crowd psychology and the insights of his uncle Dr. Freud to introduce the new profession of public relations, a steady increase in the effectiveness of mental manipulation techniques has been taking place.

Bernayes Propaganda (1928) is available online. It is almost innocent in its propagandizing for propaganda. This is typical of the material (italics added):And the man or woman who has a music room… will naturally think of buying a piano. It will come to him as his own idea. Under the old salesmanship the manufacturer said to the prospective purchaser, ‘Please buy a piano.’ The new salesmanship has reversed the process and caused the prospective purchaser to say to the manufacturer, ‘Please sell me a piano.'”

Most people are able to get through our education systems completely ignorant about how the emotions work and how emotional triggers are imprints in our nervous systems. The playing field is so uneven. On one side are harassed parents without the security a growing middle class once provided and on the other literally thousands of PhD trained psychologists and psychiatrists working all day, every day to invent and perpetrate manipulation of peoples’ hopes and fears for fun and profit.

I would like to think that learning a bit about evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience might provide some effective tools to level this playing field a bit. Understanding what our deepest drives and fears are, where they come from and how they play out just might help some people to resist the all-to-easy going with the crowd – after all the crowd looks like Lemmings heading for a cliff from the perspective of the ecological critique. Something other than business as usual is needed. In this circumstance anything that can aid us in breaking through the cognitive and emotional straightjackets that are keeping us from responding in ways proportional to the threat could prove to be very valuable.

Those of us who hope to shift values are going to need to be as skilled in presenting how the emperor has no clothes as the advertising industry is in insisting he is wearing the latest fashion.

As in ecology where we strive to work with the direction things want to go, so with the mind. Working skillfully with the mind includes some understanding of what the mind wants, what it was evolved to do. We need to understand why a man who works hard is proud of his ability to buy his wife an SUV for her jaunt down to the grocery store. It is a status symbol sure, and we will have more to say about that by and by, but a more basic evolutionary drive is involved as well. The SUV is a display of his skill as a provider, a display in the real world of things. Those of us who dare to hold out some hope for adjusting society’s values to create and support a more sustainable set of life support systems have to recognize clearly what allies and challenges will greet us along the way.

I use the term advertisers to refer to all the many different professions that use the mass media to increase their own power or profits through the manipulation of human beings’ desire and fear. This includes Madison Avenue but less obviously also encompasses all the PR departments packaging up stories to look like news reporting which our news programs then regurgitate without mentioning the source, placing products from Pepsi to iPads in our young people’s schools side by side with the mandatory watching of their ads every morning on the ‘school news’, the many professionals making a living by arranging product placement in movies and TV shows where the arts of theater have stoked the emotions and primed their audiences for unconscious manipulation, and we should not forget the army of lawyers rewriting text books, history, trails of evidence and working day in, day out to assure their employers have plausible deniability as they ride rough shod over the laws of the land and the customs of decency in communities.

As an aside, there are some books that were so fundamental in shaping my view it is easy to overlook mentioning them. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander is one such book. If you are considering going on a media diet it might be just the ticket. If you are concerned about the state of the “news” the classic study from 1988, which I have yet to see surpassed, comes from the left end of the political spectrum, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (movie version available). Both are highly recommended. A little study in this area and the knee-jerk response that markets just provide what the buyers want looks astonishingly naïve.

I would be remiss not to mention the many educated people putting their knowledge of psychology to work to saturate an entire generation in realistic murder scenarios, creating for their employers the video game industry reaping profits in excesses of movies, theaters, rock concerts and all the rest. Yep, twitchy simulated human hunting is the number one pastime – a pure co-opting of our nervous systems ability to respond quickly to loud, flashy sensory inputs and jack the adrenal systems with a graphically detailed threat of violence. Does not sound quite so clever and all that when put that way does it?

The hope mentioned is not entirely unreasonable. I contend that many of the current perversions of our sad and sick polity are the direct result of PR and advertising, in a word – mind manipulations. Once the resources for the non-stop mental bombardment run dry, people may respond to events differently than they do today. One of the areas of our social lives I expect to see considerable changes in is the world of work. Today only the power of advertising’s coupling with capital are able to sustain the perversions of work that render it meaningless and without true value for the great majority of people in the overdeveloped world. Most people want to feel that what they are doing in their many hours of employment is really, truly making a difference in the world, making it a little bit better. When most work is spreadsheets and yet another consumer product, well… By cold-heartedly manipulating our desires and fears, the products billions of years of evolution, they are able to offer incitements that are all but irresistible. This is particularly true given the system they create to systematically remove more healthy and viable alternatives.

For example, since the security of the extended family and the productive homestead have been removed as viable options for most people, the need to provide for those we love can be more readily redirected to whatever the needs of the market might be this quarter. There are numerous sociological studies of how the nuclear family was created in a boardroom and sold to society to produce the market required by post-war industrialism. By design, options to consumerism were removed. Just as the food industry learned how the right percentage of salt, fat and sugar can become irresistible while being nutritionally vacuous, so our general incentive system has similarly been perverted by using the same tricks; using our evolved nature’s against us.

Gaining an understanding of our evolutionary inheritance has at least two benefits:

  1. Less shrill judgements of our social and individual inanities.

    Much of what looks to the ecologically literate as downright insanity – the huge SUV where a small car will do – looks a little less crazy when analyzed from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. Sure the manifestation of caring for loved ones might have been perverted to harmful forms and someday the biosphere violence hidden in such forms will be recognized but that does not change the fact that the intention is noble.

  2. A more realistic assessment of the human condition, both socially and individually.

    Learning about all the different ways our biological inheritance has expressed itself through numerous cultures breaks through the foremost obstacle to radical change in the industrial world, the one that says that ‘this is just the way the world is.’ No, in fact, it is not. Studying our evolutionary past helps us separate the defining characteristics of our species from the culturally contingent. The same study can also aid us as individuals as we work to make sense of our inner world experiences.

Did you sense an undercurrent of anger in this essay? Particularly in the paragraphs describing the abuse of our minds by the rich and powerful? Such things are tricky. On the one hand the critical analysis gains gravity through its symbiosis with the emotions. Consider the work of Nietzsche; without his passionate style his philosophy would not be what it is at all. Additionally, the reason for allowing an expression of anger is ultimately one of healing. On the other hand, just adding more anger to a world already filled with hate is not doing anyone any good. Anger at injustice is needed if anyone is to try and protect the weak and innocent, yet history teaches us the worst of our human monsters thought they were acting for the right reasons so we need to be careful.

I wanted an illustration to continue our discussion of feelings and their role in individual health and the health of our societies. Feelings are no less a cognitive phenomenon than any other object of consciousness. What sets them apart is their content, for they are first and foremost reports on the physiological state of the body. Damasio explains in Descartes Error they are, “the cognition of our visceral and musculoskeletal state.” He goes on to say that, “Feelings let us mind the body, attentively, as during an emotional state, or faintly, as during a background state.”

Neuroscience is suggesting that the western ideal of a completely emotionless objectivity is actually just a cover of sorts for other agendas. Unfelt abstractions have violated the basic rule, ‘take your body with you.’ There is much here for a contemplative to consider, not least the role of the body in various yogas. Now, however, I would like to share the distinction between intellect and insight (prajna) that Buddhism teaches. It neatly summarizes numerous important points about what we have started to discuss.

“…there is a way that is superior to the purely intellectual way to study, which is the contemplative way, or the meditative way. One is still thinking, going through the same process of reasoning and so on, but at a slower pace and using a variety of mental faculties and physical states and processes in order to stay focused on the subject, on the object of contemplation. Indeed, we need to realize there are different ways of thinking. Even when we say we are “thinking” in our normal everyday usage of the word, we are actually referring to “thinking” in many different ways. By thinking in a purely intellectual way, we may gain some insight, but all the other aspects of thought and being are not involved; it is a purely intellectual thing; it operates on its own. It is almost an intellectual exercise, but that exercise may end up being a more or less neutral activity, from a spiritual point of view.”
From Karma, Traleg Kyabgon

There are teachings in Tantric Buddhism about how anger, when transformed, becomes mirror-like wisdom, discriminating awareness. There are similar transformations for all the other emotional poisons as well. Those interested in exploring this more should seek out a qualified teacher, if they have not already. For obvious reasons it is not the kind of thing you can really learn just from a book. For our part, here on this blog, it is interesting to contemplate how such transformative powers might play out across not just individuals but groups, even whole societies. Greed, lust and aggression might very well summarize the gods we actually worship in this society, but what else might they be holding in their hands? Clarity of insight, strength of character, courage in the face of wrong perhaps?

The Evolution of Feeling

About two hundred years ago a social movement was coming into its own. The movement touched art,literature, history, and the sciences and has left lasting impressions throughout our society today. The movement was in part a reaction to the industrial revolution and the accompanying rationalization of nature. Where the Age of Enlightenment had left many people hopeful that a rational reorganization of human life and society would lead to ever greener pastures, those in this alternative movement saw in these ideals a cold, calculating reason cut off from the ethics and values, not to mention the messy complexity, of real life. The movement was Romanticism which peaked sometime between 1800 and 1850.

Central to the Romantic Movement was a belief that the authenticity of feelings and emotions brought about the most intense aesthetic experiences and in them a truth deeper than reason alone was glimpsed. They were moved by the beauty of nature as opposed to the classical forms and sought freedom from the urban decay of the time through a return to more medieval norms. Highly valuing spontaneity, the romantics also came to value the hero and the heroic who through their deeper penetrations of intuition and emotion would lead society to a better place.

The Romantic Movement provides fodder for great stories full of heroics, dramatic emotional theatrics and lots of Hollywood glamor. The Romantic Movement, while not quite taking over our popular culture, has come close with its worship of youth, getting in touch with your feelings pop psychology and the exaltation of just do it spontaneity. If it recognizes a dark side of living from the emotions, well that is just the price for genius. The romantic ideals are understandable given the highly engineered, overdeveloped world that confronted humanity two hundred years ago. Even more so today when we worry about nature deficit disorder, the Dionysian ecstasies seem to offer a release from the statutes of our overly programmed and controlled lives. Rock & Roll started promising revolution and ended selling Cadillacs. Why?

The romantic notions are a backhanded compliment to the power of knowledge and the splendor of the knowing intellect above the feeling heart. The romantic is playing with the same guild of story elements, accepting all the same basic premises of the Faustian hero. It is simply a reversal of saviors as we find in Goethe’s great poem when love – the feeling heart – leads the magician out of his ignorant hubris that willingly make deals with the devil himself, if only he could possess the knowledge that would give him the power to mold life to his wishes.

The deals with the devil the industrialized world has been willing to make run the gamut from nuclear waste generating activities to genetically modified crops. Pushing science to find the knowledge that has practical applications is our society’s defining characteristic. Those of us interested in what more sane ways of living might arise after the collapse of industrial civilization and helping those who suffer as the slow collapse continues should understand the dominant story. Put simply, there are two approaches to acquiring knowledge and each has its place. In one, the Faustian, knowledge is power and it is sought to aid us in remaking the world as we wish or need it to be for our own survival. The other approach seeks knowledge of the world in itself, to know it more thoroughly so that we can adjust ourselves to its reality. They are the knowings of science and love. As the Francis Bacon metaphors reveal embarrassingly clearly the Faustian approach seeks to storm the castle, put nature on the rack and force her to give up her secrets. The other approach was championed by Goethe where observation of living wholes in their environmental context, in a word systems thinking, is primary and the dissection of dead parts is secondary.

The contemplative learns storming the gates of heaven is ultimately less productive than waiting on the light, seducing the lord to come into your heart. What the Romantics help us see more clearly is how the divisions we place between these forms of knowing are artificial, a construct of our cultural imagination. Those deals with the devil made using the cold hard reason – ‘it’s just business you know’ – we are now coming to understand include very large emotional elements as they eat up what remains of our viable-for-humans planetary systems.

The whole dichotomy between heart and head that the western intellectual traditions had been wrestling with is cast here on the level of social movements. In this view the dark, animal emotions are the chthonic roots of our bodily form while the intellect soars in a realm of Platonic purity. By these lights the human experience is one of struggle between these two contending forces. The mind and body are seen as worlds apart instead of an integrated whole. Descartes captured the essence of this point of view when he wrote, “even if body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is.” Neuroscientist Anthony Damasio has called this Descartes Error and in a book of the same name lays out the current understanding of the brain-body connection. The state of the art of neuroscience has been finding the feeling element is hardly cut off from our reasoning, quite the contrary in fact. The highest level goals in the brain are set by the emotions and reasoning is not possible without their aid.

The triune brain theory we discussed last week reproduced this whole heart and head dichotomy in a characteristically dark twentieth century way – the role of the heart is played by the reptile. The theory is basically saying the neocortex is where the moral ideals of justice and the powers of reason reside but sadly they are mixed up with the selfish and violent reptilian brain stem, our inescapable fallen nature. The hot, irrational impulses follow biology while the intellect brings us the gifts of civilization. Since the Romantic Movement it has become very common to assume the emotions and the intellect are in separate realms. Steven Pinker points out the dichotomy has also influenced scientific thought in “the id and the superego, biological drives and cultural norms, right and left hemispheres, limbic and cerebral cortex and the evolutionary baggage of our animal ancestors and the general intelligence that propelled us to civilization.”

This triune brain theory rests on a few hypotheses which have not turned out to be the case. First it appeals to the astonishingly conservative power evolution sometimes displays when it keeps fundamental life systems unchanged for billions of years. The features and functions of the brain stem are assumed to have been conserved. The theory assumes the brain stem and its accompanying emotions are hard to reprogram. No doubt there is some degree of conservation around the life support systems found in these regions of the brain but the bulk of these regions seem to have been evolved in step with the development of the neocortex. One example is that the hypothalamus, a member of the older layers, grew in step with the growth of the neocortex. It is also evident that the emotions are quite susceptible to changes and manipulations by evolutionary growth as witnessed in the different dispositions of Pit Bulls and Saint Bernards. Finally modern research indicates that the cerebral cortex has taken over many, if not most sensory and motor functions.

The second hypothesis the triune brain theory assumes is that the neocortex rides piggyback on the older brain regions. Modern investigations have shown that this is not the case, that circuits and signals run both directions. The almond shaped brain module known as the amygdala is well studied. It encompasses many of the circuits that influence the emotions. It receives signals from both the brain stem, as when the body perceives a loud noise and a simple time sensitive message needs to be sent and it receives signals from the cerebral cortex, where sometimes very complex signals are generated from our most refined abstractions. It is well known how thoughts can set off the emotions. Think, for example, of the Dear John letter. Additionally, the emotions help the cerebral cortex as it plots for courtship, escape, revenge and more.

The triune brain theory “promotes the belief that emotions are animal legacies” as Steven Pinker has it in How the Mind Works. The modern view is otherwise. Pinker explains it recognizes the emotions are well designed brain modules that work “in harmony with the intellect and are indispensable to the functioning of the whole mind. The problem with emotions is not that they are untamed natural forces or vestiges of our animal past; it is that they were designed to propagate copies of the genes that built them rather than to promote happiness, wisdom or moral values.”

So if the triune brain model is of limited usefulness what replaces it? There have been many alternatives proffered for why the human brain evolved as it did. Two of the ones on my shelves most impressed me. The first is The Mating Mind, How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature by Geoffrey Miller. He argues that our consciousness, creativity, art, and morality were sexual attractors, not just side effects of a larger brain. The other title is The Runaway Brain: The Evolution of Human Uniqueness by Christopher Wills.  He contends that there is a positive feedback loop between human culture and the genes that control the growth and evolution of the brain. Both books are well written and researched and together help overcome the temptation to latch onto a single theory as the be all and end all of the brain’s evolutionary story.

With these couple of recommendations for those who are interested in delving deeper into this subject our conversation is going to shift to what we can learn about our minds from the modern neurosciences. There has been a revolution in our tools for investigating this openly fantastic and complex bit of organic matter we call our brains and nervous systems. The field is enormous. In the coming weeks I hope to share some of what has struck me as the most relevant highlights of the findings for those of us with a propensity for contemplative practices and a heartfelt concern for the ecological health of our planet. There are a number of fertile collaborations between cognitive science and the neurosciences to guide us on our way. Remember the goal of our investigations is a more complete appreciation of the role of compassion in human affairs.

We have already taken our first step along these lines. In Descartes Error Damasio mentions the neurological facts that any theory of self and consciousness needs to be able to take into account. These are among them:

a) Consciousness and wakefulness as well as consciousness and low-level attention can be separated.
b) Consciousness and emotion are not separable.

Concerning point b) Damasio notes this is a “most revealing” fact. Indeed.