evolution

The meditation cure

Robert Wright, WSJ: A basic practice of Buddhism turns out to be one of the best ways to deal with the anxieties and appetites bequeathed to us by our evolutionary history.

Much of Buddhism can be boiled down to a bad-news/good-news story. The bad news is that life is full of suffering and we humans are full of illusions. The good news is that these two problems are actually one problem: If we could get rid of our illusions—if we could see the world clearly—our suffering would end. …

Read the original article »

Read More

Buddhists are pro-environment, pro-evolution

evo_env-relig3

Josh Rosenau, evolutionary biologist and Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education downloaded the 2007 version of Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey and mapped the correlation between attitudes on the environment and attitudes on evolution. The result is the graph above. His blog post on this graph is here.

In the original survey, people had been asked which of these statements they most agreed with:

Stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy; or
Stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost.

The second question asked people to agree or disagree with the statement:

Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.

The sizes of the circles are are in proportion to the relative population sizes in the original Pew survey.

As you’ll see, Buddhists strongly agree that evolution is the best way of explaining the origins of human life. This perhaps isn’t very surprising. There’s no Buddhist creation myth to defend, and in fact that things are subject to change is a key teaching of Buddhism. While the Buddha’s emphasis was on the way our experience changes, he often referred to cosmological change as well. Had the Buddha known about how species change over time he wouldn’t have been at all surprised.

Additionally, most Buddhists I know are relatively well-educated and liberal. They respect science, for the most part.

Buddhists are also among the most pro-environmental of all religious groups, in that they support environmental regulation. That the environment needs protection against the greed and delusion of humanity is so obvious to me as a Buddhist that I can’t believe that I have would have to explain why I, and other Buddhists, see things this way.

I suppose one could argue a case that the traditional Buddhist belief in rebirth would promote a respect for the environment. Who wants to be reborn in an environmental wasteland that they themselves have helped create in a previous life? Contrast that to the view of some evangelical Christians that the world is about to end soon. Why bother preserving the environment when God is about to end his experiment?

I’m not convinced that’s actually much of a factor, although I can’t rule it out.

I that people who are attracted to Buddhism in the US tend to be liberal and pro-environmental in the first place. However, I suspect that Buddhist practices such as a mindfulness of the consequences of our actions and the cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion do nudge Buddhists toward a pro-environmental stance that they generally tended toward anyway.

Read More

“Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.” Rainer Maria Rilke

"Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help." Rainer Maria Rilke

“Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a friend and protégé, encouraging him to make peace with his inner demons.

It’s an interesting phrase, “inner demons.” We think of the demonic as being that which is evil, that which aims at our destruction. And yet I don’t believe in the concept of self-sabotage.

Yes, I know, you sometimes act in ways that keep you from doing what you want to do, even when what you want to do is likely to bring your happiness. And I know, you sometimes act in ways that limit you and keep you bound to suffering, even though you want to be free from suffering. But these actions are only self-sabotage from the point of view of the wiser, more aware, more conscious and thoughtful part of you. From the point of view of the more habitual and unconscious parts of you that give rise to these behaviors, these decisions are not acts of self-destruction, but of self-preservation.

One of the biggest delusions we can have about ourselves is that the self is unitary. That we are one thing. That we have one mind. In fact, each of us is a composite of many minds, resulting from the modular, hit-or-miss, cobbled-together evolution of the mind. Engineers call this form of “design” a “kludge.” A kludge is a workaround: a clumsy, inelegant, yet quick and “effective-enough” solution to a problem.

Our brains are kludges. They were not designed from the ground up. Existing, basic, designs were altered. New components were bolted on to an existing structure. Layer was added upon layer. And this happened over and over, creating a rambling, shambling mess, that more or less works, but at the cost of a lot of inner conflict.

Older parts of the brain (or mind) have primitive programming that bases their actions on selfishness: greedily grasping after benefits, hurting others when we need to, running from threats. More recently evolved parts of the brain are more considered: they are able to reflect on the consequences of our decisions, to recall the past and to draw lessons from it, to run simulations of the future and to imagine how decisions we make now might affect our future well-being, to imagine new ways of acting, to consider abandoning unhelpful habits.

And the old brain and the new brain are often in conflict. We might know that we need to change something in our lives (a job, a habit, a relationship) and yet some ancient part of the brain floods the body with chemicals that induce a sense of fear. We might know we need to say something to another person that might be taken critically, and yet we’re paralyzed with anxiety; what if we’re rejected, end up friendless, alone forever? And so we limp along the same old familiar but painful pathways of life, battling with ourselves as we do so. Our self-struggles simply add another layer of pain to our lives. And it can seem that things can never change.

But this isn’t self-sabotage. This is, from the point of view of our ancient impulses, self-preservation. This is us avoiding rejection. This is us not risking making a jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Our demons are not trying to destroy us. They’re trying to keep us safe. It just so happens that make a lousy job of doing so, but isn’t it good to realize that your demons aren’t actually destructive at all? That they simply want to find peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering — just the same as every other part of you?

These demons need our help. They are, to a certain extent, helpless. They are more than half blind. They are incapable of learning on their own. They need to be regulated and their circuits need to be reprogrammed.

And this is where practice comes in. Practice is where you train the mind. The word “training” is very traditional (it’s sikkhā in Pali or śikśā in Sanskrit), and the Buddha often compared training the mind to training a wild animal.

“Excellent are tamed mules, tamed thoroughbreds, tamed horses from Sindh. Excellent, tamed tuskers, great elephants. But even more excellent are those self-tamed. For not by these mounts could you go to the land unreached, as the tamed one goes by taming, well-taming, himself.” – The Buddha

This animal-training analogy is very appropriate, given the primitive, animal-like perspective that some parts of the brain have. So that part of us that’s most aware, that has the longest-term perspective on our lives, the most accurate perception of the connection between actions and consequences, has to help the rest of the brain have a wiser perspective on life.

First, the wiser and more recently evolved parts of us have to stand back from and become aware of the demons within, which of course aren’t really demonic, and are more like badly house-trained animals. This “standing back” is mindfulness, and it gives us more wiggle-room in which to maneuver.

Mindfulness is vital, but it’s not enough. We have to get on the cushion, and to spend some serious time training the brain. We need to strengthen our habits of mindfulness, and to develop our habits of kindness. As long as we relate to ourselves and others in terms of hatred and fear, we’ll keep feeding our wild animals, and they’ll keep directing our lives. The Buddha said that meditating was like tethering a wild animal to a stake. If it’s just a rope, with us on one end and a wild animal on the other, we’re in trouble. We’ll be mauled, or dragged along behind the animal, or caught up in an endless tug-of-war. We need to stand our ground in meditation and to have a fixed point (the object of the meditation) to which we keep returning.

We need to reflect, and to develop wisdom. We need to strengthen our habit of looking at past experience and seeing where it led us. We need to look at what we’re doing now and see where it might take us.

In doing all this, the more recently evolved parts of your brain are getting stronger. In neurological terms we’re learning to regulate our emotions. In poetic terms the wild animals within are becoming less wild, and less fearsome. They’re being tamed and trained.

And it’s strongly advised that we don’t try to do all this alone. The task of the mind training the mind is too hard for most of us to do it unaided. Associating with other self-trainers is enormously helpful. It gives us role-models. It allows us to see others facing their inner wildness. It helps us become more aware of our blind spots. It gives us a source of support and encouragement. And it gives us, ultimately, a chance to be of benefit to others as they turn toward their own terrifying things, and find that they are no more than helpless parts of themselves, helpless parts that need help.

Read More

Compassion is inherent to us all (Day 27)

100 Days of LovingkindnessTalking about cultivating or developing compassion can have the unfortunate side-effect of giving us the idea that compassion is something we don’t have, and need to create. Actually, the words cultivate and develop are meant to imply that we already have compassion as a natural attribute, and that what we need to do is to connect with this innate compassion and make it stronger. Really, karuna bhavana is “strengthening compassion.”

Compassion is part of our genetically inherited mental tool-kit. Other animals show compassion: primatologist Frans de Waal (one of my personal heroes) points out that chimpanzees take care of the sick and elderly, for example by bringing water to older females who are crippled by arthritis. The much less brainy capuchin monkey also shows empathy, and will help others when they have nothing directly to gain themselves. Even mice show the capacity for empathy.

Compassion is part of our evolutionary heritage. We may think of moral emotions as being handed down from on high (on a mountain-top, engraved on stone tablets) but actually they are to a large extent handed up from below, inscribed in our DNA.

We often take our compassion for granted, or ignore its whisperings. But it’s there all the time, even if we’re not aware of it.

Certainly, we often act in ways that are uncompassionate — even unkind or cruel (that harsh word, the judgmental thought, the unkind glare, cutting someone off in traffic) — but our uncompassionate instincts and our more compassionate ones coexist. The brain, and hence the self, is not unitary, but modular. The brain has not been designed from scratch as a smoothly functioning system, but has evolved piecemeal and is full of cooperating, competing, and antagonistic modules.

We therefore find ourselves morally divided. One part of us believes that showing dominance or anger is a valid means to find happiness or peace; if we’re aggressive, we hope, the troublesome object of our aggression will stay away from us and trouble us no more. But another part of us recognizes that conflict is painful and that compassion and kindness are more likely to lead to peace within our minds and in our world. In our everyday behavior we swing from one set of motivations to another.

So we need, sometimes, to let go of a whole layer of behavior and assumptions about how the world works, and how happiness is brought about in our lives, in order to connect with our innate compassion.

As with lovingkindness meditation, I have some simple reflections that help me reconnect with my innate ability to feel compassion.

As I’m beginning the practice of cultivating compassion, I recognize the truth of the following:

  1. I don’t want to suffer.
  2. But suffering is hard to avoid.

I drop these thoughts into the mind, and give them time to sink in. I give myself time to respond to the truth of these statements. I don’t have to make a response happen. I don’t have to think about these concepts — and in fact thinking about the concepts will get in the way os acknowledging their essential truthfulness. The response, like compassion itself, will come up from below.

These thoughts are deceptively simple. As you’re reading them, your eyes skimming the marks on this page, they may have no perceptible effect. The left brain understands the concepts, but perhaps isn’t touched by them. It’s just data. But let them sink in and the right brain can relate. These words reflect a fundamental reality of your life — something deep, primal, and moving. Be still, and let the words ripple through the space of the mind and see what happens. Listen.

Often the response is in the form of a mild heart ache, a tenderness in the center of the chest. This feeling of tender vulnerability is not something to avoid; it’s something to accept. It’s the stirring of compassion within the heart.

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to find out about the many benefits of being a sponsor.

When I reflect in this way I recognize something I often overlook because it’s so obvious. Life is a difficult thing to do. We want happiness but keep stumbling into suffering instead. This being human is a hard thing.

And having let these thoughts drop into the heart, and having felt the heart’s response, I let the part of me that wishes me well speak. I strengthen the innate compassion that’s been revealed by dropping phrases into the mind, just as I do in lovingkindness practice.

There are other traditional phrases that you can use, like

  • May I be free from hostility
  • May I be free from affliction
  • May I be free from suffering
  • May I live happily.

The exactly wording of the phrases doesn’t matter too much, but they have to be meaningful for you, short enough to remember, and said with sincerity.

You can just use phrases like “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.” At the same time you are aware of the fact that you suffer. You don’t have to think about this or dwell upon it. You just have an awareness of this fact in the back of your mind. It’s like if you’re talking to a friend and you know they’re going away for a few weeks and this is the last time you’re going to see them for a while; you don’t need to keep saying to yourself “My friend is going away. My friend is going away.” Instead, you just get on with your conversation, and in the back of your mind you know the truth of the situation. And that truth affects everything you say. Similarly, having established that you don’t want to suffer, and yet to, everything you say to yourself is touched by that awareness. You get on with having a conversation with yourself — a conversation that turns the heart to kindness and compassion.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

Read More

When you feel like you’re “not enough”

Girls hands holding ripe blueberriesOne slice of the pie of life feels relaxed and contented. And then there is that other slice, in which we feel driven and stressed. Trying to get pleasures, avoid pains, pile up accomplishments and recognitions, be loved by more people. Lose more weight, try to fill the hole in the heart. Slake the thirst, satisfy the hunger. Strive, strain, press.

This other slice is the conventional strategy for happiness. We pursue it for four reasons.

  1. The brain evolved through its reptilian, mammalian, and primate/human stages to meet three needs: avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. In terms of these three needs, animals that were nervous, driven, and clinging were more likely to survive and pass on their genes – which are woven into our DNA today. Try to feel not one bit uneasy, discontented, or disconnected for more than a few seconds, let alone a few minutes.
  2. You’re bombarded by thousands of messages each day that tell you to want more stuff. Even if you turn off the TV, worth in our culture is based greatly on accomplishments, wealth, and appearance; you have to keep improving, and the bar keeps rising.
  3. Past experiences, especially young ones, leave traces that are negatively biased due to the Velcro-for-pain but Teflon-for-pleasure default setting of the brain. So there’s a background sense of anxiety, resentment, loss, hurt, or inadequacy, guilt, or shame that makes us over-react today.
  4. To have any particular perception, emotion, memory, or desire, the brain must impose order on chaos, signals on noise. In a mouthful of a term, this is “cognitive essentializing.” The brain must turn verbs – dynamic streams of neural activity – into nouns: momentarily stable sights, sounds, tastes, touches, smells, and thoughts. Naturally, we try to hold onto the ones we like. But since neural processing continually changes, all experiences are fleeting. They slip through your fingers as you reach for them, an unreliable basis for deep and lasting happiness. Yet so close, so tantalizing . . . and so we keep reaching.

For these reasons, deep down there is a sense of disturbance, not-enoughness, unease. Feeling threatened and unsafe, disappointed and thwarted, insufficiently valued and loved. Driven to get ahead, to fix oneself, to capture an experience before it evaporates. So we crave and cling, suffer and harm. As if life were a cup – with a hole in the bottom – that we keep trying to fill. A strategy that is both fruitless and stressful.

All the world’s wisdom traditions point out this truth: that the conventional strategy for happiness is both doomed and actually makes us unhappier. The theistic traditions (e.g., Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity) describe this truth as the inherently unsatisfying nature of a life that is separated from an underlying Divine reality. The agnostic traditions (e.g., Buddhism) describe it as the inherent suffering in grasping or aversion toward innately ephemeral experiences.

Call this the truth of futility. Recognizing it has been both uncomfortable and enormously helpful for me, since you gradually realize that it is pointless to “crave” – to stress and strain over fleeting experiences. But there is another truth, also taught in the wisdom traditions, though perhaps not as forthrightly. This is the truth that there is always already an underlying fullness.

When this truth sinks in emotionally, into your belly and bones, you feel already peaceful, happy, and loved. There is no need for craving, broadly defined, no need to engage an unhappy strategy for happiness. And you have more to offer others now that your cup is truly full.

How?

Recognize the lies built into the conventional strategy for happiness to wake up from their spells. Mother Nature whispers: You should feel threatened, frustrated, lonely. Culture and commerce say: You need more clothes, thinner thighs, better beer; consume more and be like the pretty people on TV. The residues of past experiences, especially young ones, mutter in the background: You’re not that smart, attractive, worthy; you need to do more and be more; if you just have X, you’ll get the life you want. The essentializing nature of cognition implies: Crave more, cling more, it will work the next time, really.

As you see through these lies, recognize the truth of fullness. In terms of your core needs to avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others, observe: that you are basically alright right now; that this moment of experience has an almost overwhelming abundance of stimulation, and you probably live better than the kings and queens of old; and that you are always intimately connected with all life, and almost certainly loved. Regarding our consumerist and status-seeking culture, consider what really matters to you – for example, if you were told you had one year to live – and notice that you already have most if not all of what matters most. In terms of the messages from previous experiences, look inside to see the facts of your own natural goodness, talents, and spirit. And about the impermanent nature of experience, notice what happens when you let go of this moment: another one emerges, the vanishing Now is endlessly renewed.

Abiding in fullness doesn’t mean you sit on your thumbs. It’s normal and fine to wish for more pleasure and less pain, to aspire and create, to lean into life with passion and purpose, to pursue justice and peace. But we don’t have to want for more, fight with more, drive for more, clutch at more. While the truth of futility is that it is hopeless to crave, the truth of fullness is that it’s unnecessary.

Finding this fullness, let it sink in. For survival purposes, the brain is good at learning from the bad, but bad at learning from the good. So help it by enriching an experience through making it last a 10-20 seconds or longer, fill your body and mind, and become more intense. Also absorb it by intending and sensing that it is sinking into you as you sink into it. Do this half a dozen times a day, maybe half a minute at a time. It’s less than five minutes a day. But you’ll be gradually weaving a profound sense of being already fundamentally peaceful, happy, loved, and loving into the fabric of your brain and your life.

Read More

Tuning in to the love that fills and surrounds you

Take a breath right now, and notice how abundant the air is, full of life-giving oxygen offered freely by trees and other green growing things. You can’t see air, but it’s always available for you.

Love is a lot like the air. It may be hard to see – but it’s in you and all around you.

In the press of life – dealing with hassles in personal relationships and bombarded with news of war and other conflicts – it’s easy to lose sight of love, and feel you can’t place your faith in it. But in fact, to summarize a comment from Ghandi, daily life is saturated with moments of cooperation and generosity – between complete strangers! Let alone with one’s friends and family.

Love is woven into your day because it’s woven into your DNA: as our ancestors evolved over the last several million years, many scientists believe that love, broadly defined, has been the primary driving force behind the evolution of the brain. Bands of early humans that were particularly good at understanding and caring for each other out-competed less cooperative and loving bands, and thereby passed on the genes of empathy, bonding, friendship, altruism, romance, compassion, and kindness – the genes, in a word, of love.

Nonetheless, even though the resting state of your brain – its “home base” when you are not stressed, in pain, or feeling threatened – is grounded in love, it’s all too easy to be driven from home by something as small as a critical comment in a business meeting or a frown across a dinner table. Then we go off to a kind of inner homelessness, exiled for a time from our natural abode, caught up in the fear or anger that makes love seem like a mostly-forgotten dream. After a while, this can become the new normal, so we call homelessness home – like becoming habituated to breathing shallowly and forgetting the richness of air that would be available if we would only breathe deeply.

So we need to come home to love. To recognize and have confidence in the love in your own heart – which will energize and protect you, even when you must also be assertive with others. To see and have faith in the love in others – even when it is veiled or it comes out in problematic ways. To trust in love that’s as present as air, to trust in loving that’s as natural as breathing.

How?

Take a breath. Notice how available air is, how you can trust in it. Notice the feeling of being able to rely on the air.

Bring to mind someone who loves you. Feel the fact of this love – even if it is, to paraphrase John Welwood, a perfect love flowing through an imperfect person. Can you feel your breath and body relaxing, as you trust in this person’s love for you? Can you feel your thoughts calming, your mood improving, and your heart opening to others? Let it sink in, that trusting in love feels good and refuels you. Then if you like, do this same reflection with other people who love you.

Bring to mind someone you love. Feel the reality of your love; know that you are loving. As in the paragraph just above, absorb the benefits of recognizing and trusting in your love. Try this with others whom you love.

Scan back over your life and notice some of the many times when there was love in your heart – expressed one way or another, including generosity, kindness, patience, teamwork, self-restraint, affection, and caring. Appreciate as well that there have been many times when you wanted to love, were looking for someone or something to love (friends and good causes, too, not just romantic partners), or longed for more love in your life. These are facts, and you can trust in them – trusting in the lovingness of your heart.

In situations, open to your own lovingness. Privately ask yourself questions like: As a loving person, what is important to me here? Trusting in love, what seems right to do? Remember that you can be strong – and if need be, create consequences for others – while staying centered in love or one of its many expressions (e.g., empathy, fair play, goodwill). What happens when you assert yourself from a loving place?

Tune into the lovingness in others, no matter how obscured by their own homelessness, their own fear or anger – like seeing a distant campfire through the trees. Sense the longing in people to be at peace in their relationships, and to give and get love. What happens in a challenging relationship when you stay in touch with this lovingness inside the other person? Notice that you can both feel the lovingness in others and be tough as nails about your own rights and needs.

Don’t sentimentalize love or be naïve about it. Trusting in love does not mean assuming that someone will love you. It means confidence in the fundamentally loving nature of every person, and in the wholesome power of your own lovingness to protect you and touch the heart of others. It means coming home – home by the hearth of love.

Read More

Seek out the good news

“Tell the truth.” It’s the foundation of science, ethics, and relationships.

But we have a brain that evolved to tell lies to help us survive. As I’ve written before, over several hundred million years our ancestors:

  • Had to avoid two kinds of mistakes: thinking there’s a tiger in the bushes but actually all is well, and thinking all is well but actually there is a tiger about to pounce. The cost of the first mistake is needless worry while the cost of the second one is no more gene copies. Mother Nature designed us to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.
  • Had to get “carrots” and avoid “sticks.” If you don’t get a carrot today you’ll have another chance tomorrow, but if you don’t avoid that stick you’ll die and get no carrots forever. Consequently, negative experiences are fast-tracked into memory – “once burned, twice shy” – while most positive experiences slip through the brain like water through a sieve; in effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.

As a result, we routinely overestimate threats while underestimating opportunities and resources. Yes, many people have an “optimism bias” in what they say – but in their actions, they work harder to avoid pain than to get pleasure, they remember failures and rejections more than successes and kindness from others, they need at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions for a healthy relationship, and they muzzle themselves and play smaller in life to avoid a list of dreaded experiences.

It’s as if we live in a subtle nightmare in which the shadows and threats are exaggerated while our allies and inner resources seem distant and ineffectual. We think the dream is real so there’s no point in trying to wake up from it. Our beliefs in the dream trap us like the bars of an invisible cage.

The root cause of suffering and harm is ignorance, illusion, not seeing things as they actually are. But when we wake up and see the facts and live in the light, we feel so much freer, at ease, unthreatened, confident, overflowing, loved, and loving.

Remember some time in your past when you realized that things were not as bad as you thought, or that others were more caring, or that you were more capable. How did it feel in this instance to wake up from your own bad dream?

For instance, I recognized in my twenties that while growing up I’d been a nerd, not a wimp – a relief! Other examples from people I know: A woman realized she could be strong and people would still like her. People in recovery learn they can have a great time without being buzzed. Kids come to see that there’s no bogeyman in the closet. A girl gradually understands that she can let in her dad’s love even though he’s annoying. Another young woman lets it sink in that plenty of guys like her even though some are clustered around a “hot” classmate. A man in his 50’s realizes that no one cares whether he loses some hair. A woman finds out she can turn her art program into a publishable book.

Yes, sometimes when we wake up it’s to bad news: perhaps there’s a ceiling in your career, or you’ve been too cranky with your kids, or a partner is just not trustworthy in an important way. Living in the truth means seeing both good and bad clearly.

But because of the brain’s evolved negativity bias, most of the time when we wake up, it’s to truly good news.

How?

The good news that there’s no tiger – or that you can deal with it just fine
Consider your fears. Especially the everyday ones, such as: if I say how I really feel, people won’t like it; if I don’t lose these ten pounds, no guy worth having will want me; if I ask for a raise I’ll get criticized; if I start a little business, it will flop; if I take on some school loans it will be hard to pay them back.

How many are really true? What are the odds of them happening? If they indeed happened, how bad would it really be? And if the unlikely event did happen and if it felt really bad, how would you cope?

How does any anxiety in your temperament bias you to feel more threatened, more uneasy, more cautious than you reasonably need to be?

Think about the many things that protect and support you, from locks to laws, friends to credit cards. Think about the inner strengths you’ve used for tough times in the past, that you could draw upon to deal with challenges today.

The good news that you are full of good qualities, and that the world is full of opportunities you could likely fulfill with reasonable effort
Consider other abilities you have, like smarts, grit, talents, determination, integrity, passion, patience, sincerity, goodheartedness . . . to name a few.

What have you always wanted to do – but told yourself is out of reach?

Ask yourself what would happen if you invested just 20 minutes a day in meditation, or in exercise, or in supportive conversation with a friend or partner – or what would happen if you invested just an hour a day in all three.

What would happen if you spent half an hour a day or even a couple hours on some project, such as writing a book, laying the groundwork for changing careers, building a boat, learning a musical instrument, or making art – and could these hours add up over a single year?

The good news that you are liked, loved, and valued
Consider some of the many ways you have been seen, included, appreciated, liked, and loved. Think about the people who have seen the real you – and still cared about you. Can you see some of the many qualities you have that another person would recognize, respect, value, be drawn to, like to have on his or her team, be interested in, feel warmly toward, even cherish?

Consider the relationships you could readily have, the friends you could make, the love you could find if you drew on your courage to extend yourself, open up, stand up for what you need, and ask for what you want.

How about seeing the good in yourself, your own compassion, kindness, decency, good intentions, integrity, and loving heart.

If you trusted in the good news of your own goodness, how far and wide would you play in this life?

Read More

Don’t be intimidated

On a blog at the Huffington Post, I used the example of Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive” as a timely illustration of a larger point: humans evolved to be fearful – since that helped keep our ancestors alive – so we are very vulnerable to being frightened and even intimidated by threats, both real ones and “paper tigers.” With his march, Colbert was obviously mocking those who play on fear, since we certainly don’t need any new reminders to keep fear alive.

This vulnerability to feeling threatened has effects at many levels, ranging from individuals, couples, and families to schoolyards, organizations, and nations. Whether it’s an individual who worries about the consequences of speaking up at work or in a close relationship, a family cowed by a scary parent, a business fixated on threats instead of opportunities, or a country that’s routinely told it’s under “Threat Level Orange” – it’s the same human brain that reacts in all cases.

Therefore, understanding how your brain became so vigilant and wary, and so easily hijacked by alarm, is the first step toward gaining more control over that ancient circuitry. Then, by bringing mindful awareness to how your brain reacts to feeling threatened, you can stimulate and therefore build up the neural substrates of a mind that has more calm, wisdom, and sense of inner strength – a mind that sees real threats more clearly, acts more effectively in dealing with them, and is less rattled or distracted by exaggerated, manageable, or false alarms.

How?

The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, from ancient jellyfish to modern humans. Our ancestors had to make a critical decision many times a day: approach a reward or avoid a hazard – pursue a carrot or duck a stick.

Both are important. Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll probably have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

Body and Brain Going Negative

Consequently, your body generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones. For example, intense pain can be produced all over the body, but intense pleasure comes only (for most people) from stimulating a few specific regions.

In your brain, there are separate (though interacting) systems for negative and positive stimuli. At a larger scale, the left hemisphere is somewhat specialized for positive experiences while the right hemisphere is more focused on negative ones (this makes sense since the right hemisphere is specialized for gestalt, visual-spatial processing, so it’s advantaged for tracking threats coming from the surrounding environment).

Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. For example, people in studies can identify angry faces faster than happy ones; even if they are shown these images so quickly (just a tenth of a second or so) that they cannot have any conscious recognition of them, the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will still get activated by the angry faces.

The alarm bell of your brain – the amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) – uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory – in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.

In effect, as I wrote on Huff Post, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. That’s why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain (alas) than pleasure. (For more on the neuropsychology of the negativity bias, and references, see the slide sets on my website.)

That learning from your childhood and adulthood – both what you experienced yourself and saw others experiencing around you – is locked and loaded in your head today, ready for immediate activation, whether by a frown across a dinner table or by TV images of a car-bombing 10,000 miles away.

What to Do?

To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.

So for starters, be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid, wired so that you walk around with an ongoing trickle of anxiety (a flood for some) to keep you on alert. And wired to zero in on any apparent bad news in a larger stream of information (e.g., fixing on a casual aside from a family member or co-worker), to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive. (And, to be sure, also be mindful of any tendency you might have toward rose-colored glasses or putting that ostrich head in the sand.)

Additionally, be mindful of the forces around you that beat the drum of alarm – whether it’s a family member who threatens emotional punishment or political figures talking about inner or outer enemies. Consider for yourself whether their fears are valid – or whether they are exaggerated or empty, while downplaying or missing the larger context of opportunities and resources. Ask yourself what these forces could be getting out of beating that scary drum.

This mindfulness of both the inner workings of your brain and the outer mechanisms of fear-promotion can by itself make you less prone to needless fear.

Then you won’t be so vulnerable to intimidation by apparent “tigers” that are in fact manageable, blown out of proportion, or made of paper-mache.

Read More

Feeding the wolf of love

I once heard a Native American teaching story in which an elder, a grandmother, was asked what she had done to become so happy, so wise, so loved and respected. She replied: “It’s because I know that there are two wolves in my heart, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. And I know that everything depends on which one I feed each day.”

This story always gives me the shivers when I think of it. Who among us does not have both a wolf of love and a wolf of hate in their heart?

I know I do, including the wolf of hate, which shows up in small ways as well as large ones, such when I get judgmental, irritable, pushy, or argumentative. Even if it’s only inside my own mind – and sometimes it definitely leaks out.

We’ve got these two wolves because we evolved them, because both wolves were needed to keep our ancestors alive.

Until just 10,000 years ago, for millions of years primates, hominids, and early humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups that bred mainly within the band while competing intensely with other bands for scarce resources. Therefore, genes got passed on that promoted better cooperation inside a band and better aggression between bands. The wolf of love and the wolf of hate are stitched into human DNA.

Bands kept their distance from each other, and when they met, they often fought. For example, researchers have found that about 12-15% of hunter-gatherer men died in conflicts between bands – compared to “just” the 1% of men who died in the many bloody wars of the 20th century.

So it’s natural to fear the stranger – who, back in the Stone Age with no police around, was often a lethal threat. The related impulse to dehumanize and attack “them” also worked well (in terms of passing on genes) for millions of years.

Today, you can observe the wolf of hate all around us, in acts of thought, word, and deed. For example, as soon as we see others as “not my tribe,” whether it’s at home or work or on the evening news, the wolf of hate lifts its head and looks around for danger. And then if we feel at all threatened or mistreated or desperate, the wolf of hate jumps up and looks for someone to howl at or bite.

While the wolf of hate was vital back in the Serengeti, today it breeds alienation and anger, ulcers and heart disease, and conflicts with others at home and work.

And at a larger scale, with 7 billion people crowded together on this planet – when a flu mutation in Hong Kong can become a worldwide epidemic, when bank problems in Greece roil the global economy, when carbon emissions in one country heat up the whole world – when we fear or dehumanize or attack “them,” it usually comes back to harm “us.”

How do we feed the wolf?

So what are we going to do?

We can’t kill the wolf of hate because hating the wolf of hate just feeds it. Instead, we need to control this wolf, and channel its fire into healthy forms of protection and assertiveness. And we need to stop feeding it with fear and anger.

Meanwhile, we need to feed the wolf of love. This will make us stronger inside, more patient, and less resentful, annoyed, or aggressive. We’ll stay out of needless conflicts, treat people better, and be less of a threat to others. Then we’ll also be in a stronger position to get treated better by them.

There are lots of ways to feed the wolf of love.

We can feed it by taking in the good of everyday experiences of feeling seen, appreciated, cared about, even cherished and loved.

We can feed the wolf of love by practicing compassion for ourselves and others, and by letting these experiences of compassion sink into our heart.

We can feed the wolf of love by recognizing the good in other people – and then by taking in the experience of the goodness in others.

Similarly, we can feed the wolf of love by sensing the goodness inside our own heart, and by letting that sense of truly being a good person – not a perfect person, but a good person – also sink in.

Last, we can feed the wolf of love by seeing the good in the world, and the good in the future that we can make together – in the face of so many messages these days that are dark and despairing.

We feed the wolf of love, in other words, with heart and with hope. We feed this wolf by sustaining our sense of what’s good in other people, what’s good in ourselves, what’s already good in our world, and what could be even better in a world we can build together.

We need to stay strong to do this, to hold on to what we know to be true in spite of the brain’s tendency to focus on threats and losses, and in spite of the age-old manipulations of various groups that play on fear and anger – that feed the wolf of hate – to gain or hold onto wealth and power.

So let’s stay strong, and hold on to the good that exists all around us and inside us.

Let’s stay strong, and hold onto the good that can be, that we can nourish and build in this world.

Let’s stay strong, and hold onto each other.

Let’s stay strong enough to take in the good that feeds the wolf of love each day.

Read More

How to see people, not just our reactions to them

When we encounter someone, usually the mind automatically slots the person into a category: man, woman, your friend Tom, the kid next door, etc. Watch this happen in your own mind as you meet or talk with a co-worker, salesclerk, or family member.

In effect, the mind summarizes and simplifies tons of details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or traffic cop, or waiter) . . . and now I know what to do. Good.”

This labeling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials. As our ancestors evolved, rapid sorting of friend or foe was very useful. For example, if you’re a mouse, as soon as you smell something in the “cat” category, that’s all you need to know: freeze or run like crazy!

On the other hand, categorizing has lots of problems. It fixes attention on surface features of the person’s body, such as age, gender, attractiveness, or role. It leads to objectifying others (e.g., “pretty woman,” “authority figure”) rather than respecting their humanity. It tricks us into thinking that a person comprised of changing complexities is a static unified entity. It’s easier to feel threatened by someone you’ve labeled as this or that. And categorizing is the start of the slippery slope toward “us” and “them,” prejudice, and discrimination.

Flip it around, too: what’s it like for you when you can tell that another person has slotted you into some category? In effect, they’ve thingified you, turned you into a kind of “it” to be managed or used or dismissed, and lost sight of you as a “thou.” What’s this feel like? Personally, I don’t like it much. Of course, it’s a two-way street: if we don’t like it when it’s done to us, that’s a good reason not to do it to others.

The practice I’m about to describe can get abstract or intellectual, so try to bring it down to earth and close to your experience.

When you encounter or talk with someone, instead of reacting to what their body looks like or is doing or what category it falls into:

  • Be aware of the many things they are, such as: son, brother, father, uncle, schoolteacher, agnostic, retired, American, fisherman, politically conservative, cancer survivor, friendly, smart, donor to the YMCA, reader of detective novels, etc. etc.
  • Recognize some of the many thoughts, feelings, and reactions swirling around in the mind of the other person. Knowing the complexity of your own mind, try to imagine some of the many bubbling-up contents in their stream of consciousness.
  • Being aware of your own changes – alert one moment and sleepy another, nervous now and calm later – see changes happening in the other person.
  • Feeling how things land on you, tune into the sense of things landing on the other person. There is an experiencing of things over there – pleasure and pain, ease and stress, joy and sorrow – just like there is in you. This inherent subjectivity to experience, this quality of be-ing, underlies and transcends any particular attribute, identity, or role a person might have.
  • Knowing that there is more to you than any label could ever encompass, and that there is a mystery at the heart of you – perhaps a sacred one at that – offer the other person the gift of knowing this about them as well.

At first, try this practice with someone who is neutral to you, that you don’t know well, like another driver in traffic or a person in line with you at the deli. Then try it both with people who are close to you – such as a friend, family member, or mate – and with people who are challenging for you, such as a critical relative, intimidating boss, or rebellious teenager.

The more significant the relationship, the more it helps to see beings, not bodies.

Read More
Menu