evolution

Tuning in to the love that fills and surrounds you

Baby swaddled in white fabric

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.

Also see:

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.

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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?

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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.

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Feeding the wolf of love

A wolf, reflected as a negative image

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.

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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.

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The practice of noticing you’re alright right now

To keep our ancestors alive, the brain evolved strong tendencies toward fear, including an ongoing internal trickle of unease. This little whisper of worry keeps you scanning your inner and outer worlds for signs of trouble.

This background of unsettledness and watchfulness is so automatic that you can forget it’s there. So see if you can tune into a tension, guarding or bracing in your body. Or a vigilance about your environment or other people. Or a block against completely relaxing, letting down, letting go. Try to walk through an office or store that you know is safe without a molecule of wariness; it’s really hard. Or try to sit at home for five minutes straight while feeling undefended, soft in your body, utterly comfortable in the moment as it is, at peace. This is impossible for most people.

The brain’s default setting of apprehensiveness is a great way to keep a monkey looking over its shoulder for something about to pounce. But it’s a crummy way to live. It wears down well-being, feeds anxiety and depression and makes people play small in life.

Even worse, it’s based on a lie.

The muttering of fear tells you implicitly, “Watch out, bad things are happening you’re not seeing, don’t ever think you’re completely OK, never let down your guard.”

But take a close look at this moment, right now. You are probably alright: No one is attacking you, you are not drowning, no bombs are falling, there is no crisis. It’s not perfect, but you’re OK.

By “right now,” I really mean this instant. When we go into the future, we worry and plan. When we go into the past, we resent and regret. Threads of fear are woven into the mental tapestries of past and future. Look again at the thin slice of time that is the present. In this moment, are you basically OK? Is breathing OK? Is the heart beating? Is the mind working? The answers are almost certainly yes.

In daily life, it’s possible to access this fundamental sense of alrightness even while getting things done. You’re not ignoring real threats or issues, or pretending that everything is perfect. It’s not. But in the middle of everything, you can usually see that you’re actually alright right now.

So, several times a day, notice that you’re basically alright.

You may want more money or love, or simply salt for your French fries. Or want less pain, heartache or rush hour traffic. All very reasonable. But meanwhile, underneath all the to-ing and fro-ing, you are OK. The foundation of your activities is an aliveness and an awareness that is doing fine this second.

There you are doing dishes; notice that “I’m alright right now,” and perhaps even say that softly in your mind. Or you are driving: I’m alright right now. Or you’re talking with someone: I’m alright right now. Or doing emails or putting a child to bed: I’m alright right now.

Notice that, while feeling alright right now, you can still get things done and deal with problems. The fear that bad things will happen if you let yourself feel OK is unfounded. Let this sink in. You do not need to fear feeling alright!

Sometimes you’re really not alright. Maybe something terrible has happened, or your body is very disturbed, or your mind is very upset. Do what you can at these times to ride out the storm. But as soon as possible, notice that the core of your being is OK, like the quiet place fifty feet below a hurricane howling above the sea.

Noticing that you’re actually alright right now is not some kind of cosmic consciousness (usually), nor laying some positive attitude over your life like a pretty veil. Instead, you are knowing a simple but profound fact: In this moment I am alright. You are sensing the truth in your body, deeper than fear, that it is breathing and living and OK. You are recognizing that your mind is functioning fine no matter how nutty and not-fine the contents swirling through it are.

Settling into this basic sense of okayness is a powerful way to build well-being and resources in your brain and self. You’re taking a stand for the truth — and against the lies murmured by “Mother Nature.”

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Petting your inner lizard

Cute lizard staring directly into the camera

I’ve always liked lizards.

Growing up in the outskirts of Los Angeles, I played in the foothills near our home. Sometimes I’d catch a lizard and stroke its belly, so it would relax in my hands, seeming to feel at ease.

In my early 20’s, I found a lizard one chilly morning in the mountains. It was torpid and still in the cold and let me pick it up. Concerned that it might be freezing to death, I placed it on the shoulder of my turtleneck, where it clung and occasionally moved about for the rest of the day. There was a kind of wordless communication between us, in which the lizard seemed to feel I wouldn’t hurt it, and I felt it wouldn’t scratch or bite me. After a few hours, I hardly knew it was there, and sometime in the afternoon it left without me realizing it.

Now, years later, as I’ve learned more about how the brain evolved, my odd affinity for lizards has started making sense to me. To simplify a complex journey beginning about 600 million years ago, your brain has developed in three basic stages:

  • Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
  • Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
  • Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”

Of course, the brain is highly integrated, so these three key functions – avoiding, approaching, and attaching – are accomplished by all parts of the brain working together. Nonetheless, each function is particularly served by the region of the brain that first evolved to handle it. This fact has significant implications.

For example, in terms of avoiding harm, the brainstem and the structures just on top of it are fast and relatively rigid. Neuroplasticity – the capacity of the brain to learn from experience by changing its structure – increases as you move up both the evolutionary ladder and the layered structures of the brain.

Consequently, if you want to help yourself feel less concerned, uneasy, nervous, anxious, or traumatized – feelings and reactions that are highly affected by “reptilian,” brainstem-related processes – then you need many, many repetitions of feeling safe, protected, and at ease to leave lasting traces in the brainstem and limbic system structures that produce the first emotion, the most primal one of all: fear.

Or to put it a little differently, your inner iguana needs a LOT of petting!

To begin with, I’ve found it helps me to appreciate how scared that little lizard inside each one us is. Lizards – and early mammals, emerging about 200 million years ago – that were not continually uneasy and vigilant would fail the first test of life in the wild: eat lunch – don’t be lunch – today.

So be aware of the ongoing background trickle of anxiety in your mind, the subtle guarding and bracing with people and events as you move through your day. Then, again and again, try to relax some, remind yourself that you are actually alright right now, and send soothing and calming down into the most ancient layers of your mind.

Also soothe your own body. Most of the signals coming into the brain originate inside the body, not from out there in the world. Therefore, as your body settles down, that sends feedback up into your brain that all is well – or at least not too bad. Take a deep breath and feel each part of it, noticing that you are basically OK, and letting go of tension and anxiety as you exhale; repeat as you like. Shift your posture – even right now as you read this – to a more comfortable position. As you do activities such as eating, walking, using the bathroom, or going to bed, keep bringing awareness to the fact that you are safe, that necessary things are getting done just fine, that you are alive and well.

Throughout, keep taking in the good of these many moments of petting your inner lizard. Register the experience in your body of a softening, calming, and opening; savor it; stay with it for 10-20-30 seconds in a row so that it can transfer to implicit memory.

Some have likened the mind/brain to a kind of committee. Frankly, I think it’s more like a jungle! We can’t get rid of the critters in there – they’re hardwired into the brain – but we can tame and guide them. Then, as the bumper sticker says, they wag more and bark less.

Or relax, like a lizard at ease in the sun.

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Fear is my ally

Eagle in flight

Fearlessness isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability stay with one’s fear and use its energy wisely. Sunada explains how working with (as opposed to fighting against) our fears can point us toward our own place of freedom.

We tend to think of fear as a bad thing. Something that gets in our way. After all, one of the enlightened qualities of a Buddha is fearlessness. Doesn’t that mean we should work toward eliminating fear from our experience?

Not so fast!

Let’s think about what fear is. On one level, it’s the instinct that propels us to run when we’re in danger. Think caveman running away from tigers and bears. Heart-pounding adrenaline.

if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world.

Now let’s dial down the intensity to normal everyday levels and remove that dreaded bite. It might help to imagine that same caveman walking through the woods without being chased, but still needing to be vigilant. What are the basic qualities at play here? I imagine he’d be mentally alert, with all his senses open and fully receptive. He’s physically alert as well -– nimble and ready to respond immediately and appropriately to any new sights and sounds. His mind would be clear and engaged. He’s in the present, and ready to deploy any of the skills and knowledge in his mental quiver. It’s his instinct and intuition that’s engaged. He’s in a state of readiness –- not to the point of hyper-anxiety –- but a clear, focused alertness that can respond intelligently to whatever comes his way.

Those qualities, I would argue, are the gifts that fear gives us. If that caveman had nothing to fear, he’d feel no motivation to be so keenly engaged. He’d just blunder through the woods, self-absorbed and doing whatever. So if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world. It also has the potential to draw out our inner resources that we may not even be aware of. It’s a force that can move us forward.

…what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself.

In our present society, fear isn’t so much about physical danger. Most of us don’t encounter bodily threats regularly like that caveman did. For us, fears are mostly of the psychological kind –- like risking a leap into a new job or relationship, or a fear of loneliness or a lack of money. But fundamentally, all fear is the same.

I think we’ve so oversold ourselves on our collective belief that fear is “bad” that it’s become a hindrance. Sure, we all encounter fear from time to time, and yes, it’s very unpleasant. But I sense that what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself. We hate that gnawing in our gut so much that we try to run away from it –- an instinctive reaction from our caveman days. But we can’t run away from ourselves. Not only is it futile, it’s also self-defeating.

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us.

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us. We’re at a boundary and know there’s freedom on the other side. That emotional charge wouldn’t be there if that thing on the other side weren’t so important to us. But it doesn’t feel safe to go there. And the more we try to fight our fear, the more it engulfs us. It fills our minds and dictates our thoughts. We’re left immobilized, and boxed in the same old limited place. There’s an adage that goes something like “what we put our attention to is what grows.” So this is another illustration of that principle.

Rather than fighting our fear, what if we used it intelligently, like that caveman walking through the woods? When we feel fear, we’re not in any real danger in that moment, are we? So stop, take a breath, and be with the fear. When we feel that emotional charge, recognize it for what it really is –- our wish for freedom. It’s something to be welcomed, nurtured, and cherished. Let’s use it wisely.

When I listen to [my fear], it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go.

So when the fear temperature rises, stay with it. But don’t fight it or indulge it. Recognize any doomsday thoughts that come up for what they are — just thoughts. In that moment, with your heightened awareness, look for what’s really calling for your attention. What’s one step we can take to move forward? As we sit, mindfully listening to our fear, we gradually loosen its hold on us. And slowly, we build our confidence to really step through to the other side, in an intelligent and grounded way.

I’ve grown to see fear as my ally. When I listen to it, it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go. It’s not just any helpful direction, but the exact place where I’m most in need of breaking through. The flip side of the same coin of fear is courage, or the fearlessness of the Buddha. Ironically the more I embrace my fear, the more strongly I connect with those little wisps of courage I can find within me.

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Four reasons Buddhists can love evolution

Charles Darwin

Evolution — at least in the United States — has a deeply troubled relationship with religion. Or at least it does with some religions.

As you can see from the Pew Trust chart below, Buddhists on the whole (81% of them) think that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth.

In fact of all the religious traditions included on the chart, Buddhists are the most accepting of evolution, with evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses being the least accepting.

Those of us who value an objective and evidence-based (read “scientific”) understanding of the world are greatly disturbed by attempts to displace sound science from the classroom, to introduce spurious ideas such as “creation science” and “Intelligent Design,” and to give the impression that evolution is somehow scientifically controversial, when in fact it’s backed by an overwhelming amount of evidence from all branches of science.

graph of belief in evolution, by religious affiliation

Many of us see the intrusion of religion into the public sphere as being a serious erosion of the principles of the US constitution, which protect us from government-sponsored religious coercion by ensuring that no religion can use government to foist itself upon us. We see the fear of Evolution that some religious practitioners have as being a potentially serious threat to our own religious freedoms.

But evolution, on the other hand, holds no fear for Buddhists, and in fact it fits with the Buddhist world view rather well. And this year being the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of “The Origin Of Species,” this is perhaps a good time to explain why it is that Buddhism quite happily accepts evolution as an explanation for the origins of human life, and to explore how Buddhists relate to science in general and evolution in particular.

See also

NO CREATION MYTH

First up is that Buddhism has no creation myth to defend. It’s true that in the Pali Aggañña Sutta the Buddha tells a story about the creation of the world, in which he claims that the the universe goes through periods of evolution and involution (similar to the ideas of the “Big Bang” and what’s sometimes called “The Big Crunch” where gravitational forces draw all the matter in the universe back to a central point).

But the sutta is a parody on the claims of the religious Orthodox of the day — the Brahmins — to be a superior class of human being, with special privileges in society and a special relationship with the gods. The parody shows the gods to be deluded beings just like ourselves and the Brahmins to be Pretenders to social and religious pre-eminence. The Aggañña Sutta is clearly not to be taken literally as a origins myth.

If you need convincing of that fact, you’ll need to take a look at a broader range of Buddhist teachings, including the famous Parable of the Poisoned Arrow. In this parable the Buddha points out that religious practitioners who concern themselves with the origins of the universe and other topics are missing the point of religious practice.

Religion, a very fundamental sense, is not about God, myths, rules, or even beliefs. Instead it’s about moving from a state of suffering to a state of non-suffering. The rest of a religious tradition is merely (in theory, anyway) a tool to help us achieve the end of suffering.

The Buddha in fact said that he only taught one thing, suffering and how to end it. Contemplating the origins of the universe or any other such topic is merely a distraction. Just as a man shot with a poison arrow would die if instead of pulling out the arrow he speculated endlessly about who made the arrow, why it was shot, what kind of wood was used, etc, so too suffering beings continue to suffer as long as they focus on anything but understanding how suffering arises and how to deal with it. And even that is only useful insofar as those beings actually put their understanding into practice.

It’s likely that the Buddha had no special knowledge of the origins of the universe, but even if he had known he wouldn’t have discussed the matter: “And why are [these things] undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.

“Conjecture about the origin of the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.” [Acintita Sutta]. Certainly, some fundamentalists seem seriously out-to-lunch, so perhaps the Buddha was right in claiming that dwelling repeatedly on things you can never prove from your own experience can drive you a bit crazy.

EMPHASIS ON SEEKING TRUTH, NOT BELIEVING DOGMA

Buddhism has an emphasis on seeking truth, and has no interest in getting people to “believe” anything. Belief is not a path to salvation. No amount of belief that the arrow isn’t poisoned, or belief that it was sent as a test of your faith, or that it’s a relatively new arrow and not the old arrow that carbon dating shows it to be will save you from suffering. It’s our actions that cause us suffering or help us to escape suffering.

Buddhism encourages us not to believe what we’ve been told is the truth, but instead to seek the truth through our own experience. The Kalama Sutta, often called the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry, is the most important source that affirms that we must each seek the truth though our own experience. The Kalamas were a clan who were rather confused because they had lots of teachers, both orthodox Brahmins and more experimental shramanas, coming to their area and giving contradictory teachings. Who was right? Who was wrong? The Kalamas were interested in the Buddha’s take on how to cut their through the thicket of views and establish what was true. The Buddha said,

Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’

That may not seem to leave much! You can’t trust sacred scriptures, tradition, or even so-called “common sense.” So what did the Buddha say could be trusted as a source of truth? He said,

When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

So there are two things here. First, we have to trust our own experience. What leads to happiness and what leads to suffering? Second, we can trust “the wise” – but with the unspoken proviso that we have to establish who are “the wise” on the basis of — again — our experience.

It’s precisely fundamentalism’s “belief in beliefs” and its taking the writings of bronze age nomadic herdsmen as the infallible and literal word of God that leads them into the trap of having to deny the evidence of their own senses. As Barbara O’Brien writes on her About.com blog, “I mean, who you gonna believe? A 5,000-year-old book or your own lying eyes?”

For Buddhists, the outmoded scientific understanding of 5th century BCE India is simply not a problem. We’ve already been encouraged to reject anything that conflicts with evidence. And since the evidence from biology, physics, and chemistry suggests overwhelmingly that the universe is billions of years old and that life has evolved, even if Buddhist scriptures did conflict with evolution (which they don’t) we’d have an ethical obligation to discard them.

ACCEPTANCE OF IMPERMANENCE

When Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution through natural selection 150 years ago, virtually everyone — scientists and preachers alike — believed that species were fixed and immutable. What would the Buddha have said about the fact that species do in fact change and evolve over time? He’d have said, “Of course. All conditioned things are subject to change.” There simply is no problem in Buddhism with accepting that species evolve.

The monotheistic religions tend to take what’s called an “eternalistic” view of the universe. God is eternal and unchanging (and yet somehow still manages to act). The soul is eternal and unchanging (and yet somehow can be either saved or damned).

This view of things (or at least certain important things) is an attempt to find security in an unstable and impermanent world. Existentially, we find we suffer because we lose the things we love, including ourselves. How do we respond to the raw fact of impermanence? We can either argue that the self is in fact eternal and unchanging, or we can do as Buddhism does and accept and embrace change.

Buddhism sees the problem of change not as being change itself, but in how we relate to it — the problem is that we cling to impermanent things. When we cling to something impermanent (anything from status, or a new car, or a relationship, all the way to life itself) we will inevitably suffer as the thing we depend upon changes. The problem is not change, but clinging.

Buddhism would see the attempt to see species as immutable to be a form of clinging — clinging to the categories that the mind creates. In the mind of the eternalist it becomes a form of blasphemy to question the labels that the mind imposes upon reality. Buddhism is very astute at recognizing that all labels are merely arbitrary and static snapshots of our perception of an ever-changing process of change. Even the categories and labels that Buddhism uses are seen as being, ultimately, false. Thus we have texts like the Heart Sutra that negate important Buddhist concepts such as the Four Noble Truths (“There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path”) as well as numerous other teachings.

In the Pali texts it’s clear that the same approach is taken. The Dharma (the teachings and practices) are seen as a raft, to be abandoned when we reach the far shore of direct perception of reality. We of course need the raft just now, but it’s important also that we recognize that the raft is something to be abandoned. If we cling to it we’ll never be able to step onto the shores of true spiritual awakening.

So in short, Buddhism has no fear of impermanence. The evolution of species is just another example of impermanence and of the lack of inherent selfhood.

CONTINUITY OF EVOLUTION AND DHARMA

 

While traveling around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin was struck by the fact that he could understand facial expressions of people from different cultures, but not their languages or gestures. Darwin also believed that our sense of moral compassion came from a natural desire to alleviate the suffering of others. He was an ardent abolitionist. Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco … said … that these views are nearly identical to those of Tibetan Buddhists. “I am now calling myself a Darwinian,” Ekman recalled the Dalai Lama saying, after Ekman read him some passages of Darwin’s work. [From New Scientist]

That’s quite something, that the Dalai Lama considers himself a Darwinist. From an evolutionary point of view, ethics and compassion have evolved. They are a natural part of the evolved universe. This is important to the Dalai Lama because he has a profound belief that goodness is inherent to our nature.

The English Buddhist teacher, Sangharakshita, (who happens to be my own teacher) makes explicit this link between the Darwinianly evolved universe and the path of spirituality. He argues that we have inherited faculties such as self-awareness and compassion, but that our evolution is incomplete. Biological, or Darwinian evolution, he calls “The Lower Evolution,” while he compares and contrasts the spiritual path by referring to it as “The Higher Evolution.”

The Lower Evolution is not a conscious process, has no end-point (it is “non-teleological”), and operates on groups rather than on individuals. The Higher Evolution is not something that just happens to us: it’s the result of our own efforts to shape our consciousness, to make something of ourselves. The Higher Evolution is teleological — it has an end point. We find ourselves suffering, and the sense of self-awareness we have inherited allows us to ask why this is, and what we can do about it. The end point of The Higher Evolution is the attainment of non-suffering. And The Higher Evolution is an individual rather than a collective process. We can practice with others, we can learn from others, and we can even sometimes teach and guide others, but in the end it is we as individuals who must bring about the changes within ourselves that lead to non-suffering.

An old friend of mine once made a very interesting comparison between the Lower and Higher Evolutions. Biological evolution takes place through selection pressure. There are limited resources in the world and creatures must compete for them. Those creatures that are most successful at competing for resources will survive and will pass on their genetic adaptations to future generations. And so species evolve in response to selection pressure.

In the “environment” of the mind we have a “population” of mental habits and mental states. Some of those (greed, hatred, delusion) cause us suffering. Others, by contrast (compassion, awareness) tend to make us happier. Once we commit ourselves to the goal of suffering less, and as we maintain an awareness of that goal in our consciousness, we create a selection pressure of sorts.

Those habits that cause us suffering will tend to lose the battle for inner resources because we will choose not to feed them. Those mental habits that tend to being happiness will tend to thrive and grow because resources (our mental energy) is being poured into them.

Here’s what’s said to be a Cherokee legend, even though it isn’t:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

This is evolution in action — not the Darwinian evolution of species but the Higher Evolution of the individual consciousness. Biological evolution has given us the tools of self-awareness and understanding that allow us to “evolve” ourselves into more spiritually advanced — and happier — beings. But it’s up to us to do the work of feeding only the helpful wolf.

Evolution is, for Buddhists, not something to deny or to be afraid of, but something to accept (as long as the evidence is in its favor) and to make use of.

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