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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph E Ledoux’

Reptilian Rage

When an atrocity occurs we often find ourselves asking, ‘How could people do something like that?’ We seem to have forgotten that we are all wired to a crocodile and that it’s waiting to pounce at any moment. Some of us are better at controlling it than others.

We’ve all been there.

When we’re already slightly stressed trying to fix a leak in the shower, and the plumber fails to turn up, we experience a flood of frustration. We’ve waited in all morning, he’s not answering his mobile and the trickle from the pipe looks to us as though it is turning into a stream. We’re fed up of collecting it in a bucket to water the flowers so that at least it doesn’t go to waste.

‘Where the hell is he? Why doesn’t he ring?’ we bellow.

We have lost a sense of proportion. Compared to the Everest of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia this is less than a pimple. We never consider that the plumber’s mother may have fallen down the stairs or his pregnant wife has had to be rushed to hospital in premature labour, and that our leak was the last thing on his mind.

How do we learn to deal with this kind of over-reaction?

A Recent Pointer

As I explained in a recent post, reading a recent Guardian article by Michele Gelfand triggered a useful insight for me.

Amongst other things she wrote: ‘Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.’ For me ‘tight’ can translate as narrow or shallow in terms of our perspective.

This maps onto my long explored idea that fear, in terms of our perspective on the world, narrows the compass of compassion and shallows the depth of our understanding, making intolerance and prejudice more likely.

I went on to say that the narrower and shallower the container of our perspective, the more likely we are to experience feelings of threat and a strong sense of difference between us and other people. I thought I may have been putting the cart before the horse in seeing the feelings as ultimately causative rather than possibly secondary. The wider we set our compass of compassion, and the deeper our wisdom becomes, the less likely are we to be fearful, threatened and reactively aggressive. When something disturbing happens and it’s a drop in the ocean you feel no fear. When something happens and it’s a drop in a thimble, all hell spills out.

This may be a two-way street, though, in that fear will reduce the size of our container, just as the smallness of the container is conducive to fear.

What is at stake here is not just some general understanding of what may be going on behind the darker events unfolding in our society, it is also a model that we can use to bring the crocodile inside each one of us to account so that we don’t have to keep adding to the tidal discord threatening to engulf us.

 

A Possible Remedy

I want to pick up from here and explore a simplified model (see diagram above) that I am working on to help me remember how to deal with triggering events that precipitate me into potentially damaging reactions.

I’ll make reference to, but won’t repeat in detail, all the other blog posts I’ve written that relate to this issue.

When you start to examine the neurophysiology of feelings it gets quite hard to separate body from emotion. Most of what we term ‘emotion’ is generated by brain centres that go back to our evolutionary origins and cannot really be separated from our body. It is easier to see them as ‘gut feelings’ rather than anything higher.

The only encounters that I can remember having with my inner crocodile as a child were, first, in the terror I felt as I faced anaesthetization in hospital at about the age of five – that was the face of its fear – and the second was when I was in a fight on the primary school playground and a flood of anger immersed me – that was its face of rage. Interestingly, I ran away from the fight, not because I was scared of being beaten or being punished for fighting, but because I was frightened of my own anger and what I might do next. Possibly the fear of my own anger as a child may have been a conditioned visceral response somehow rooted in my earlier experience of powerlessness in hospital.

Just in case anyone was wondering I am not dealing in some Miltonic paradigm of Satan, replacing his serpent in the garden with a crocodile in the brain. My argument is far less aery faery.

What does the science of the brain have to say about this?

Take a classic text on this subject – Ledoux’s The Emotional Brain. He writes (pages 112-13):

. . . . modern researchers have gone into remote areas of the world to firmly establish with scientific methods that at least some emotions have fairly universal modes of expression, especially in the face. On the basis of this kind of evidence, the late Sylvan Tomkins proposed the existence of eight basic emotions: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish. These are said to represent innate, patterned responses that are controlled by “hardwired” brain systems. . . . Paul Ekman has a shorter list, consisting of six basic emotions with universal and facial expression: surprise, happiness, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.

Very often if not always the amygdala is involved in all that is going on. Ledoux writes (page 168- 69):

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning. It is where trigger stimuli do their triggering.

Building on the role of the amygdala, Ledoux 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.

So what?

I may have loaded the dice of my argument rather by placing this quote at the end of the sequence, but I do think there is a case for saying that most of what we regard as our key emotions are reptilian in origin, not even mammalian.

What I am suggesting is that there is this crocodile at the bottom of our mind’s swamp. The evidence is that it has access to events more rapidly than our higher brain centres which lag a few microseconds behind. We are already triggered into a strong feeling before our frontal lobes get a look in.

What makes it more difficult to handle is that there are more nerves passing alarm signals upwards from the amygdala than there are nerves operating to calm things down. And even while we have calmed our conscious mind, we will not necessarily have reduced the power of the reactions in the amygdala, as research in rats has shown.

So is there no hope, then, of improving our ability to manage our primitive reactions?

That will have to wait until next time.

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Interconnectedness

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.

From Does Mindfulness Make You More Compassionate?  bShauna Shapiro

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to our take on reality, to where our society is heading and to what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in July 2014. It relates so closely to the holistic ideas of Medina that I am exploring right now it seemed a good time to republish. Whether I’m making progress with the plan I explain at the end of the post is anybody’s guess!

Selective Connectedness

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.

What reinforces tribalism and enables it to retain its power, it seems to me, is partly what Jonathan Haidt describes in his book, The Righteous Mind, as our tendency to hive behaviour.

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.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Fanaticism

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.

The Limbic System scanned from Rita Carter's 'Mapping the Mind'

The Limbic System scanned from Rita Carter’s ‘Mapping the Mind’

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.

(Shoghi Effendi Unfolding Destiny – page 458)

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.

nirvana-buddha

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

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Interconnectedness

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.

From Does Mindfulness Make You More Compassionate?  bShauna Shapiro

Selective Connectedness

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.

What reinforces tribalism and enables it to retain its power, it seems to me, is partly what Jonathan Haidt describes in his book, The Righteous Mind, as our tendency to hive behaviour.

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.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Fanaticism

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.

The Limbic System scanned from Rita Carter's 'Mapping the Mind'

The Limbic System scanned from Rita Carter’s ‘Mapping the Mind’

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.

(Shoghi Effendi Unfolding Destiny – page 458)

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.

nirvana-buddha

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

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