community

Love the world

Your brain evolved in three stages (to simplify a complex process):

Reptile – Brainstem, focused on AVOIDING harm
Mammal – Limbic system, focused on APPROACHING rewards
Primate – Cortex, focused on ATTACHING to “us”

With a fun use (to me, at least) of animal themes, the first JOT in this series – pet the lizard – was about how to soothe the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. The next one – feed the mouse – addressed how to help early mammalian neural systems feel rewarded and fulfilled. The third one – hug the monkey – was about weaving the sense of being included and loved into the primate cerebral cortex.

Of course, these three practices go way beyond their anatomical roots. The three primary motivational systems of your brain – Avoiding harms, Approaching rewards, and Attaching to “us” – draw on many neural networks to accomplish their goals. In fact, one motivational system can tap the two other ones; for example, you could express attachment to a friend by helping her avoid harm and approach rewards.

Lately, I’ve started to realize that a fourth fundamental human motivational system is developing out of the other three.

Whether it’s our hunter-gatherer ancestors depending upon their habitats for food and shelter, or modern folks making use of the settings of home and work, or the nearly 7 billion members of the human race pressing hard up against the limits of Lifeboat Earth: to survive and flourish, cultural evolution alone and perhaps biological evolution as well are calling us to love the world.

The world is near to hand in the matter/energy, nature, and human-made objects all around you. And then in widening circles, the world extends out to include society and culture, the planet itself, and ultimately the entire and still often mysterious universe.

When you love the world, you both appreciate and care for it. Each of these actions makes you feel good, plus they help you preserve and improve everything you depend on for air and food, livelihood, security, pleasure, and community.

During the last several million years of human evolution, our emerging species had neither much capacity for harm nor much understanding of the effects it did have upon the world.

But now, humanity has great power for good and ill, as well as undeniable knowledge of its impact on both the natural and built world. As the planet heats up and resources decline . . . and as a species – us – that evolved in part through being lethally aggressive toward its own kind (see the research on the high fraction of deaths due to violence in hunter-gatherer cultures) must now live cooperatively and peacefully if it is to live at all . . . it is critically important that a fourth major motivation guide our thoughts, words, and above all, deeds:

Love the world.

How?

In terms of the aspect of love that is about appreciating, routinely look for opportunities to enjoy, value, and feel grateful for little things in your environment.

These range from whatever is close by – soft pillow cases, flowers blooming, traffic laws, sun rising, libraries, tree shade, shared language – to the increasingly vast nested nests we all share: the internet, global institutions, oxygen/CO2 exchanges through which animals and plants give breath to each other, the incredibly rare and fortuitous occurrence of a rocky planet – Earth – surviving the early formation of a solar system to find an orbit that allows for liquid water on its surface . . . all the way out to this universe which bubbled out of nothing: the largest nest of all, the extraordinary miracle in which we make our ordinary days.

In terms of the aspect of love that is about caring for, this means to me a combination of cherishing, protecting, and nurturing the world. You naturally cherish what you love; cherishing something, you want to keep it safe; once it’s protected, you want to help it flourish. (As an aside, it’s interesting that these three inclinations map to the three underlying motivational systems: the Attaching system cherishes, the Avoiding system protects, and the Approaching system nurtures; as with other aspects of evolution, new capabilities and functions draw on preceding, “lower” systems.)

SO much could be written – and has – about cherishing our world, and protecting and nurturing it, yet I must be brief here, with just three suggestions.

For a minute, an hour, or a whole week, touch natural and human-made things around you like you truly cherish them.If you cherished an orange or a cup, how would you hold it?

Protect something from harm. You could save something you might otherwise throw away, from water running in a sink to food in a restaurant. Security is a wholesome aim of the Avoiding system, which is achieved in large part by conserving what we’ve got.

Pick one thing and focus on helping it grow and thrive. Perhaps a plant, or a business, or a project at a local school, or a collaboration among some friends, or a fix-it repair at home.

At the heart of it, I experience this practice as a matter of our relationship with the world. Do we relate to it as an adversary or distant acquaintance?

Or do we relate to the world as a friend, a child, a beloved nest?

Here and there and everywhere, let’s all live in a world we love.

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Meditation on happiness

Happiness – we all seek it and want to know the secret of it. Self-help books on happiness line the shelves of book shops and libraries and there are all kinds of theories about happiness.

Over the years what I thought about and desired as a means to gaining happiness have changed as I have… matured (I like the word matured better than aged). Here is my list, organized by decades.

From ages:

0-10 I wanted to be cared for, safe, nourished and nurtured to be happy (although I could not articulate all this at the time).

11-20 I wanted friendships, fun, freedom, popularity, a car and someone interesting and sexy to date.

21-30 I wanted a college education, to go to lots of parties, a satisfying career, a marriage partner, pregnancy and healthy children, and a nice house in a neighborhood with a good school system.

31-40 I wanted to further my career as a Social Worker and Educational Consultant, a happy marriage, and healthy, independent kids.

41-50 I wanted to understand what spirituality meant, to know the meaning of life, to go beyond my self and live in an altruistic manner.

51-60 I want freedom, health, prosperity, deep friendships and to simplify my life more and more.

Throughout these decades there have been some things that did not change from decade to decade, including:

  • health, love and happiness for myself, my family members, friends and all people
  • stimulating work that helps people
  • a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home
  • good friends, a happy marriage and independent children
  • peace in the world
  • that everyone have food to eat

For the past ten years, my quest for happiness has focused on things that, at younger ages, I would not have thought important, including:

  • a spiritual practice and community
  • deep friendships based on caring, trust and mutual generosity
  • a life simplified by having less – fewer material things, a small living space
  • simple pleasures – watching otters and ducks on the pond by my cottage, watching the seasons change, spending time in natural settings, cooking for friends, phone calls and visits from my kids
  • peace, tranquility, compassion, and acceptance of myself, my children, my friends and acquaintances
  • acceptance for all that is
  • living mindfully, ethically and compassionately

I realize happiness comes from what I value most, what brings me pleasure, challenge, contentment and peace.

Whatever is on your list of things or values that bring you happiness, I hope you revel in them.

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The art of ditching old friends, and of finding new ones

What do you do when you find you’ve changed — but your friends haven’t? Bodhipaksa recounts how he found himself growing apart from one set of friends, and closer to a new set who were more supportive of his spiritual quest.

I was at university when I started practicing Buddhism. I was surrounded by fellow students who were like me. We thought the height of happiness was to party, to drink, to trade insults, and to find someone to have sex with. I was at vet school, and most of us thought that meat-eating was natural and right, and that animals existed in order to be devoured. When I took up meditation I found myself changing. Over time I started to find myself more at home with the people who hung out at my local Buddhist center — people who were vegetarian, interested in philosophy and meaningful conversations, and people who valued tranquility as an opportunity to deepen self-awareness.

I started to find many (although not all) of the people that I used to hang out with at college to be rather negative and shallow. Their conversations often didn’t interest me. Since I hadn’t gone very deep in my practice, I was rather judgmental, and socially inept to boot. I experienced a lot of ill will towards people because they weren’t spiritual enough, which is rather richly ironic. This caused me a lot of pain, and probably didn’t make others happy either.

   Thinking that we’re ‘spiritual’ while others aren’t is an ego trip.

But I was relatively lucky in that I made new friends in the Buddhist community, and had a gradual switch over from one set of friends to another. I experienced tensions between the two communities I was involved in, but at least I wasn’t isolated. A lot of people find themselves in a similar situation as they begin to practice. They start to find their work colleagues gossipy and trivial. They can find that family members resent the fact that they’re changing. How do we deal with this?

I think you have some valuable spiritual opportunities when we’re in this kind of situation. One opportunity is to practice patience with your old friends. It’s good to remember that at one time you did fit in with them, and at that time presumably you had much the same conversational style and interests as they still have. Thinking that we’re “spiritual” while others aren’t is an ego trip.

Another opportunity we have is to learn to be more skilled in communication. This can have a big effect on people. I had a friend in Scotland of whom I can honestly say that I never heard him criticizing anyone at any time. In fact if he heard me being critical then he would almost always present another point of view about the person or thing I was criticizing, which shifted the perspective and really brought me up short. And he did this in a very friendly way that gave me no cause for reactivity. He never pointed out, for example, that I was being critical — he just quietly came in with a more considered point of view. I’d suddenly realize that I had been unkind and one-sided in my speech.

   We frequently overlook the positive, especially when we develop a habit of judging others.

And there’s an art as well in steering people into deeper levels of conversation. You can bring the topic back into focus when people are wandering off into other areas. You can ask questions to go deeper (basically being a good, active listener). You can challenge in a friendly way. If you’re challenging how the group as a whole communicates, then it’s far better to talk in terms of how “we” communicate rather than how “you” communicate. You can share something deeper from your own experience (although you have to be careful about this since it’s not helpful to offer up your soul to be trampled on). You have the opportunity to be, in short, a leader — the proverbial one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

We can also practice “rejoicing in merits,” or “giving positive feedback”, as it’s more commonly known. We frequently overlook the positive, especially when we develop a habit of judging others. When we’ve decided that other people are “unspiritual” we can find ourselves focusing on what we consider to be their faults, and filtering out anything positive that they do. Our perceptions of others can be very selective. People are “stubborn” when they stick with a point of view we don’t agree with; they’re “committed” when they stick with a point of view we find favor with. People are “fickle” if they change their minds and disagree with us; they’re flexible when they change their minds and support our opinions. We need to learn to see the positive in others, and also to support its development. Tell someone she’s just done something that’s friendly, and she’s more likely to act in a friendly way in the future.

   Tell someone she’s just done something that’s friendly, and she’s more likely to act in a friendly way in the future.

If, as sometimes happens, we find ourselves stuck with “old” friends but haven’t found a new community to practice with, we have an opportunity to seek out people who are more like-minded. We may have to take the initiative and to be more out-going, rather than hoping people will magically find us. If we make the first move, the magic may well happen. I had a lovely experience some years ago when I was speaking at a conference in Missoula. At lunch time someone sat beside me (because I looked friendly, he said). It turned out that he, like me, had recently moved to Missoula, he had lived in Scotland (my homeland), had an interest in the relationship between Buddhism and business (my master’s degree topic), and had like me run a retreat center. It was rather eerie, and of course we’ve been friends ever since. But I had to make the decision to go to the conference, and be open to meeting new people.

But there may be some of the people that you currently hang out with that you don’t want to maintain contacts with. That would be a very sensible thing to do. The Buddha was forever warning people to hang out with friends who would actually support and encourage what is best in you rather than undermine it. If people have a very negative effect on you, despite your best efforts, those are relationships you may want to put behind you. At the same time there’s no point in isolating yourself. You need to find a balance.

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