Another way that mindfulness cultivates compassion is that it helps us see our interconnectedness. For example, let’s say that the left hand has a splinter in it. The right hand would naturally pull out the splinter, right? The left hand wouldn’t say to the right hand, “Oh, thank you so much! You’re so compassionate and generous!” The right hand removing the splinter is simply the appropriate response—it’s just what the right hand does, because the two hands are part of the same body.
The more you practice mindfulness, the more you begin to see that we’re all part of the same body—that I as the right hand actually feel you, the left hand’s pain, and I naturally want to help. Mindfulness cultivates this interconnectedness and clear seeing, which leads to greater compassion and understanding of the mysterious web in which we all are woven.
At the end of an earlier post exploring the excellent book Irreducible Mind, I was enthusing about the concept of interconnectedness, the idea that everything is connected with everything else. The rigorous thinking behind the book rescues this concept from New Age flakiness and the very similar idea at the root of the Bahá’í Faith has made it a guiding principle for me ever since I began to follow that path in 1982.
Irreducible Mind summarises the position of two early investigators of this disputed truth, FWH Myers and William James (page 562):
For Myers and James . . . we are open, in some way profoundly interconnected with each other and with the entire universe, and what we consciously experience is somehow selected by our brains from a much larger field of conscious activities originating at least in part beyond the margins of everyday consciousness, and perhaps even beyond the brain itself.
Though in reality we may be connected to everything, our usual experience of connectedness is far more selective, and this can be a major problem when a fanatical over-identification with a group or an idea comes into play.
Robert Wright sees this in evolutionary terms. In his book The Evolution of God, he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428) can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’
His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:
The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.
He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (pages 428-429):
The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.
However, en route to a distant end state where we have widened the compass of our compassion to include all of humanity, there are many intermediate stages – the family, the tribe, the city and the nation for example.
Tribal allegiances can still be formed within modern society. We need to look no further than the local football team for examples. Even at the national level football supporters look more like a tribe than a nation state as the recent world cup testifies.
Haidt discusses this at some length in the context of a college football team and what he says is both fascinating and important (page 247).
Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community.
How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.).
It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”
He does not attempt to reduce religion to hive tendencies: he merely sees hive tendencies as something that can operate to attract people to religious ritual.
Clearly, whatever the benefits to the in-group in terms of allegiance and loyalty, and to the in-group member in terms of bonding to others, there are dangers in giving this tendency too free a reign and it is something that can be exploited for destructive purposes. One of its key effects is to narrow the compass of compassion so it includes only the in-group members and engenders prejudicial results for those who do not belong. Football violence is only a relatively minor example.
All the drilling that army recruits are subjected to serves a similar purpose and enhances the likelihood that participants will kill or die for those they have bonded with.
Before true fanaticism can flourish though we need some other ingredients in the mix. One of the most important of these is arousal of the limbic system, and especially the amygdala.
Daniel Goleman’s popular book Emotional Intelligence explains what goes on inside our brain and body when anger occurs, causing us to have a flood of angry emotions. Goleman outlines research undertaken by Psychologist Dolf Zillman who has investigated anger and rage. Zillman has found that the universal trigger for anger begins with a sense of endangerment to our lives or the lives of those close to us. This does not necessarily mean physical endangerment, but also includes symbolic threats to self-esteem and dignity such as being verbally insulted, being patronised or put down, and the frustration that comes when we can’t complete a task or goal.
Upon the initial trigger, catecholamines are released by the limbic system (amygdala) which immediately put the body into a “fight or flight” mode – that is, preparing the body for some form of action. Additionally, the trigger also makes the amygdala alert the nervous system to be ready for possible action. This effect lasts much longer than the initial surge of catecholamines, keeping the emotional brain on stand-by for potential arousal, should we need it, further down the line. This is why people are often more easily annoyed or quick to anger if they have experienced an angry situation recently.
Building on the role of the amygdala, Joseph E Ledoux, in his book The Emotional Brain, explains further (page 174):
The remarkable fact is that at the level of behavior, defence against danger is achieved in many different ways in different species, yet the amygdala’s role is constant. It is this correspondence across species that no doubt allows diverse behaviours to achieve the same evolutionary function in different animals. This functional equivalence in neural correspondence applies to many vertebrate brains, including human brains. When it comes to detecting and responding to danger, the brain just hasn’t changed much. In some ways we are emotional lizards. I’m quite confident in telling you that studies of fear reactions in rats tell us a great deal about how fear mechanisms work in our brains as well.
This is not encouraging for those of us who might it wish it were easier to widen the compass of compassion to include everyone on the planet. We are hypersensitive to danger and react badly to real or imagined threats to ourselves or those to whom we are in some way attached, and the resulting fear and/or anger narrows our field of vision further. In fact, that kind of arousal creates a dangerous tunnel vision.
Fanaticism stems from an initial failure of connectedness, a strong identification with a sub-group. And it’s a sub-group that often feels unjustly treated and/or threatened in some other way by outsiders as well as morally superior to them. This tunnel vision, reinforced by the consequent fear/anger state, leaves the mind flooded with destructive reptilian input of the kind Ledoux refers to. Crocodiles and alligators are not famous for their compassion and tenderness.
It is this tunnel vision that serves to negate empathy with others outside the chosen few.
Simon Baron-Cohen explores an interesting possibility in his insightful book Zero Degrees of Empathy. ‘Evil’ is the absence of empathy which is in itself a positive power (page 125):
Without empathy we risk the breakdown of relationships, we become capable of hurting others, and we can cause conflict. With empathy we have a resource to resolve conflict, increase community cohesion, and dissolve another person’s pain.
This is similar to the Bahá’í view that evil is not a positive demonic power in itself but the absence of good, of the positive:
We know absence of light is darkness, but no one would assert darkness was not a fact. It exists even though it is only the absence of something else. So evil exists too, and we cannot close our eyes to it, even though it is a negative existence.
That would be bad enough. However, there is another aspect, also explored by Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book The Happiness Hypothesis. In his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).
The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.
We need look no further than Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, the Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya and even, closer to home, the Ukraine for blood-stained volumes of evidence in support of this. My early disillusion with the various forms of Marxism on offer in the 60s stemmed to a significant extent from a close and shocking examination of the Bolshevik Revolution and Maoism as I searched for reasons to explain why the factions I saw active around me were prepared to sanction killing and lying for a cause that was meant to draw ‘from each according to his ability’ and provide for everyone compassionately ‘according to his needs.’
The price for our not being able to embrace the whole of humanity within our compass of compassion could prove very high indeed, not just for those we injure but for ourselves as well. If we are as interconnected as I believe we are than we cannot harm another with out also harming ourselves.
Writing this blog was part of my plan to do my bit to turn things around to the best of my ability.
Practising not Preaching
Basically, then, I hold that everything is interconnected. Our ability to be truly effective depends first of all upon our understanding of that fact, and secondly upon our ability to express that understanding fully in action.
Even though the Bahá’í tradition, and other traditions such as Buddhism that I explored on my decades-long path of search, emphasise that it is not just people but all life that is so deeply interconnected, even though I have long realised I cannot injure any living thing without at the same time injuring myself, hence my decision to become vegetarian many decades ago, and even though I have tried to live that understanding as far as I have been able, it has dawned on me gradually that I don’t really write coherently as though that was my deeply felt perspective and am therefore not being as effective as I could be at deepening my understanding. I have tended to flit from subject to subject, somehow dealing with each one as though it was discrete.
There has been a glacial rate of change in my more recent posts that has alerted me to the need to integrate my understanding of different subjects more explicitly. The image at the top of the post is meant to remind me of this. Nature, mind, the arts and histories are not separate island domains with only a few obvious overlaps – poetry and nature, consciousness and literature – and so on. It’s much more than that. Myth, mind, microbe, martyrdom and Marxism, to name a random few, are all deeply interconnected. Each can potentially shed valuable light upon the others.
While it would not be possible in relatively short posts such as I write to do justice to loads of those areas all at once in the one place, what I plan to do instead is pick up at any one time more strands of the web that binds all these things together than I have ever done so far. If I am to be more effective in the way I write, this is what it seems to me that I must do.
Well, that’s my plan at least. It could be easier said than done.
What is clear from many accounts of mystical states such as the NDE, once we cross over to that other realm we become aware in the strongest possible fashion of unconditional love, of being connected to a higher power that loves us, of being connected to each other and all of creation. When we are locked inside our brains, it is our blindness to that connectedness that can allow us to abuse others as though they were somehow different from ourselves.
This ignorance, in ourselves and in others, is to be understood, pitied and resisted with love. We know no better yet. When tyrants die the veils will fall from their eyes as they will from ours also: our duty in this life is to seek to dispel those veils before we die. Even the best of the rest of us can’t see further then the end of our own immediate needs most of the time.
As I reflected upon these things I came to realize that my primary goal now, when death cannot be very far away at my age, is to do all I absolutely can to dissolve the veils that blind me to this reality – to this interconnectedness.
Writing alone will not be enough to achieve this aim. I realise that I must work harder at the experiential aspects of this task such as meditation and the active practice of empathy: these two things, would you believe it, seem to be interconnected as the video at the bottom suggests (see also this link for an accessible video and this link for a blog post on the relationship between mindfulness/meditation and compassion).
This blog can hopefully then become both an exploration of where my reading takes me supplemented by perhaps the more important exploration of how my active practice progresses. I felt it was important to go public with this plan – not as a boast, more of a motivating pledge.
I realise I could well fail completely to deliver, which would be embarrassing. Keeping it quiet though seemed a good way to bury it along with all the other fruitless plans I’ve ever recorded in my many notebooks.
How Meditation Changes the Brain
Posted in Civilisation Building, Compassion & Empathy, Spirituality | Tagged compassion, empathy, FWH Myers, Jonathan Haidt, Joseph E Ledoux, Robert Wright, Simon Baron-Cohen, William James | Leave a Comment »
We watched a powerful documentary last night on BBC2. It’s still on iPlayer with six days to go for those who missed it. Below is an extract from a Guardian review if you need more information before deciding.
The film sifts through the tragedy in forensic detail – while never letting you forget that it’s a desperately sad story about people.
The terrible tragedy of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Dhaka last year, in which more than 1,100 people died, has been covered exhaustively. I think most vaguely news-aware people know what happened, no? And why it happened, too. So how do you make a new documentary about it?
Like this, that’s how. After some footage of the immediate aftermath – dust, disbelief, wailing, horror – This World: Clothes To Die For (BBC2) cuts to a few fashion haul videos. You know, young western women showing off, via YouTube, all the clothes they’ve just bought at well-known shops for not very much money. Clothes that are very likely to have been made in Bangladesh.
It’s not so crude and simplistic as to point the finger, or accuse them of having blood on their credit cards, but merely an illustration that fashions change faster and cost less than ever, and that this throwaway consumerism is part of the problem.
Also, and so poignantly, the next people to appear in the film are some of the survivors – workers in the garment factories who somehow managed to get out. And they’re mostly young women, of the same kind of age (late teens) as the ones we’ve just seen. “The girls who wear these will remember us one day,” one of them – Shopna – says, hopefully.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew –
Hack and rack the growing green!
It’s hard to express how much I value trees though I’ve made one attempt already on this blog.
A hint of it perhaps comes across from my reaction to a recent walk in Haugh Wood. We changed our usual route and crossed the main road from the car park and walked to the pathway down the hill on the other side. We nearly didn’t proceed any further when we saw the warning sign that forestry work was in progress. We looked at the sign more carefully and it explained that we had to observe the various warnings against climbing on log piles or walking down paths where work was under way.
At first it was the usually tranquil experience of shadow, subtle greens and birdsong. We thought we had perhaps initially exaggerated the risks implied by the warning sign. As we descended more deeply into that part of the wood we noticed unusual tracks, as of some huge and heavy creature. Shortly after, we heard its roaring coming from somewhere to our left. We squinted valiantly to glimpse the source of the sound if we could. Finally we caught hints of the monster shining its red warning through the crowded undergrowth. With its massive motor muscles it was heaving the corpses of fallen pine into piles in a distant clearing. It did not take long for us to find, shortly after a bend in the path, evidence of its earlier work. I know this kind of work has to be done by the forestry commission if woodlands are to be managed properly though sometimes I feel it might be a touch overzealous. Richard Mabey expresses some words of caution in his recent book The Ash and the Beech. Writing of the activity after the Great Storm of 1987 he explains (page xv):
There was more damage caused to our woods by reckless clearing up after the storm, than by the wind itself, and living trees, and millions of seedlings and even the topsoil were often swept away by bulldozers, responding to political pressure and the public distaste for what appeared to be untidiness.
I also realise that corridors clear of trees have to be created to encourage the butterfly population.
However, these thoughts do little to ease the shock of such a massive pile of felled nobility – and, to be honest, the pine is not even my favourite tree. To have seen the trunks of oak or beech collected in similar numbers would have been almost intolerable. I am with Hopkins in this, though not quite as ready to die (Martin A Very Private Life – page 212):
When an ash tree was felled in the garden [at Stonyhurst], he “heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”
This was not the only such pile as we walked further down the path. Amid all these disturbing stacks of felled pine there were flashes of beauty that would not otherwise have been visible to us, for example the clear view of the rings that marked the years of making, but they utterly failed to compensate for the cost in terms of trees felled to provide it.
I know my attitude is perhaps a bit extreme.
It’s not even consistent. I know books are dead trees but I still love to read them. In fact, this love of books contributes to my sense of gratitude to trees for what they provide us so generously. Even when I’m pegging out the washing and using one of our wooden pegs to secure a towel or shirt to the line, the same sense of wonder and indebtedness comes over me as I feel the texture of the wood and see the beauty of the grain in even such a small and common thing.
Given the continuing state of the world I felt moved to post again some poems from a sequence I posted earlier. It is sad that the poems still seem completely relevant.
Given the continuing state of the world I felt moved to publish again some poems from a sequence I posted earlier. This poem was originally composed at the same time but was not included. I thought the voices were too stereotyped so I held it back: now I’m not so sure, so I’m giving it an airing.
It is sad that the poems still seem completely relevant.