Here’s to the Helpers

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An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.

“Young lady,” he asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”

“But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”

The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves. “It made a difference to that one.”

We have traded our intimacy for social media, our romantic bonds for dating matches on apps, our societal truth for the propaganda of corporate interests, our spiritual questioning for dogmatism, our intellectual curiosity for standardized tests and grading, our inner voices for the opinions of celebrities and hustler gurus and politicians, our mindfulness for algorithmic distractions and outrage, our inborn need to belong to communities for ideological bubbles, our trust in scientific evidence for the attractive lies of false leaders, our solitude for public exhibitionism.

We have ignored the hunter-gatherer wisdom of our past, obedient now to the myth of progress.

But we must remember who we are and where we came from.

We are animals born into mystery, looking up at the stars. Uncertain in ourselves, not knowing where we are heading. We exist with the same bodies, the same brains, as Homo sapiens from thousands of years past, roaming on the plains, hunting in forests and by the sea, foraging together in small bands.

Except now, our technology is exponentially increasing at a scale that we cannot predict.

We are overwhelmed with information; lost in a matrix that we do not understand.

Our civilizational “progress” is built on the bones of the indigenous and the poor and the powerless.

Our “progress” comes at the expense of our land, and oceans, and air.

We are reaching beyond what we can globally sustain. Former empires have perished from their unrestrained greed for more resources. They were limited in past ages by geography and capacity, collapsing in regions, and not over the entire planet.

What will be the cost of our progress?

We have grown arrogant in our comfort, hardened away from our compassion, believing that our reality is the only reality.

Yet even at our most uncertain, there are still those saints who are unknown and nameless, who help even when they do not need to help.

They often are not rich, don’t have their profiles written up in magazines, and will never win any prestigious awards.

They may have shared their last bit of food while already surviving on so little. They may have cherished the disheartened, shown warmth to the neglected, tended to the diseased and dying, spoken kindly to the hopeless.

They do not tremble in silence while the wheels of prejudice crush over their land.

Withering what was once fertile into pale death and smoke.

They tend to what they love, to what they serve.

They help, even when they could fall back into ignorance, even when they could prosper through easy greed, even when they could compromise their values, conforming into groupthink for the illusion of security.

They help.

No-Drama Discipline (review)

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“No-Drama Discipline” breaks down discipline from a holistic perspective rather than from an attitude of strict punishment. Based in neuroscience, Daniel J. Siegal, a clinical psychologist and UCLA professor, and Tina Payne Bryson, a psychotherapist and founder of “The Center for Connection,” examine the healthiest ways to discipline children, so they can grow into mature adults.

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Whenever a child misbehaves, we need to learn about why that child is misbehaving. Rather than blaming the child, we can look at what caused their actions and how they reacted. It is easy to become frustrated and angry, taking a child’s behavior personally. Rather than acting from our own punitive habits, however, we should pause and reflect.

(1) What made the child feel that way?

(2) What are the reasons for his or her actions?

(3) What lesson can we give based on what happened?

The goal of discipline is not to punish or give a consequence to bad behavior. As caregivers and teachers and parents, we want to teach a lesson. We want our children to be caring, loving, responsible, self-controlled, and compassionate human beings.

Whenever a child does something we do not like, that is a chance for us to teach them a specific message — about honesty, caring, responsibility, bravery, and so on. But how can we best communicate our lesson in an effective way?

To be effective, we need to understand our child’s age and developmental stage. We cannot expect children to act like little adults. Not even adults will be perfect all the time. We must also understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to discipline. Children are unique and may not respond to a specific technique. Even the same child may react differently based on their mood and the given circumstances.

Children generally don’t act out because they are cruel, sadistic, or want to aggravate us. They usually misbehave because they haven’t learned how to properly regulate their emotions and desires and impulses.

We can guide a child through their struggles, helping them connect their feelings to their behavior. Instead of reacting with a harsh punishment, it is important for us to attune to the child’s needs, to see the situation from their eyes, to listen with compassion, and to look for deeper causes. What is the meaning behind the thrown object, the meltdown in the grocery store, the teasing on the playground?

“It’s easy to forget that our children are just that — children — and to expect behavior beyond their developmental capacity.”

As caregivers, parents, and teachers, we need to be a calm presence in our children’s lives. Rather than sending a child into isolation (time-out) for a long period of time, which abandons the child when he or she is already out of control, it is necessary to guide a child back from their strong emotions, teaching them to regulate themselves.

We need to set boundaries. We need to let the child know — with calmness and consistency — what is acceptable and what is not. Even a well-regulated child will test our rules. Trying to lecture, or explain, such boundaries is not ideal when a child is distraught.

“We need to help develop our children’s upstairs brain — along with all of the skills it makes possible — and while doing so, we may need to act as an external upstairs brain along the way, working with them and helping them make decisions they’re not quite capable yet of making for themselves.”

What we do repeatedly shapes our children’s brains. Our responses to them, whether we yell when they break a toy or embrace them when they are sad, builds their internal architecture.

How they feel about themselves, how they communicate with their peers, how they handle challenges later in life, develops through our interactions with them, when they behave and misbehave. We are training them from our engagement, from our attitude toward their actions, from our language, day after day after day.

“When we discipline with threats — whether explicitly through our words or implicitly through scary nonverbals like our tone, posture, and facial expressions — we activate the defensive circuits of our child’s reactive reptilian downstairs brain. We call this ‘poking the lizard,’ and we don’t recommend it because it almost always leads to escalating emotions, for both parent and child.”

We can engage a child’s higher brain, helping them to calm down and to be more reflective about who they are. Through connecting with them when they’re sad, upset, and not listening, we can establish a nurturing presence. Even when we help children label their emotions, their higher brain activates and their lower brain is soothed.

Children are not computers who will follow our commands all the time. They are constantly changing, developing people. We can consistently communicate with them that we care, that we will support them even when they make mistakes, that we are there for them. When they are distressed, we don’t need to react harshly and punish them. We can establish that we are always there for them, despite their actions, leading them toward integration.

We want our children’s upstairs brains to grow.

“One way to think about it is that we’re helping our kids develop the ability to shift between the different aspects of what’s called the autonomic nervous system. One part of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic branch, which you can think of as the ‘accelerator’ of the system. Like a gas pedal, it causes us to react with gusto to impulses and situations, as it primes the body for action. The other part is the parasympathetic branch, which serves as the ‘brakes’ of the system and allows us to stop and regulate ourselves and our impulses. Keeping the accelerator and the brakes in balance is key for emotional regulation, so when we help children develop the capacity to control themselves even when they’re upset, we’re helping them learn to balance these two branches of the autonomic nervous system.”

“Purely in terms of brain functioning, sometimes an activated accelerator (which might result in a child’s inappropriate and impulsive action) followed by the sudden application of brakes (in the form of parental limit setting) leads to a nervous system response that may cause the child to stop and feel a sense of shame. When this happens, the physiologic manifestation might result in avoiding eye contact, feeling a heaviness in her chest, and possibly experiencing a sinking feeling in her stomach. Parents might describe this by saying she ‘feels bad about what she’s done.’ This initial awareness of having crossed a line is extremely healthy, and it’s evidence of a child’s developing upstairs brain. Some scientists suggest that limit setting that creates a ‘healthy sense of shame’ leads to an internal compass to guide future behavior. It means she’s beginning to acquire a conscience, or an inner voice, along with an understanding of morality and self-control. Over time, as her parents repeatedly help her recognize the moments when she needs to put on the brakes, her behavior begins to change. It’s more than simply learning that a particular action is bad, or that her parents don’t like what she’s done, so she’d better avoid that action or she’ll get in trouble. More occurs within this child than just learning the rules of good vs. bad or acceptable vs. unacceptable. Rather, her brain actually changes, and her nervous system gets wired to tell her what ‘feels right,’ which modifies her future behavior. New experiences wire new connections among her neurons, and the changes in the circuitry of her brain fundamentally and positively alter the way she interacts with her world. The way her parents help this process along is by lovingly and empathically teaching her which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t. That’s why it’s essential that we set limits and that our children internalize ‘no’ when necessary, particularly in the early years, when the regulatory circuits of the brain are wiring up. By helping them understand the rules and limits in their respective environments, we help build their conscience.”

We don’t need to embarrass children or scream at them. That message teaches children to be reactive, to be scared of those who are supposed to care for them, confusing their need for a secure attachment with a threat. Whenever a child is misbehaving, that is an opportunity for a child to learn a lesson. Their behavior shows where they are developmentally, what they need to work on, and what specific skills they should practice.

When a child misbehaves but isn’t attuned to, their emotions may escalate. We can connect with the child, and redirect them, before their behavior becomes destructive.

“Through connection, we can soothe their internal storm, help them calm down, and assist them in making better decisions. When they feel our love and acceptance, when they ‘feel felt’ by us, even when they know we don’t like their actions (or they don’t like ours), they can begin to regain control and allow their upstairs brains to engage again.”

“Imagine the last time you felt really sad or angry or upset. How would it have felt if someone you love told you, ‘You need to calm down,’ or ‘It’s not that big a deal?’ Or what if you were told to ‘go be by yourself until you’re calm and ready to be nice and happy?’ These responses would feel awful, wouldn’t they? Yet these are the kinds of things we tell our kids all the time. When we do, we actually increase their internal distress, leading to more acting out, not less. These responses accomplish the opposite of connection, effectively amplifying negative states.

Connection, on the other hand, calms, allowing children to begin to regain control of their emotions and bodies. It allows them to ‘feel felt,’ and this empathy soothes the sense of isolation or being misunderstood that arises with the reactivity of their downstairs brain and the whole nervous system: heart pounding, lungs rapidly breathing, muscles tightening, and intestines churning. Those reactive states are uncomfortable, and they can become intensified with further demands and disconnection. With connection, however, kids can make more thoughtful choices and handle themselves better. What connection does, essentially, is to integrate the brain. Here’s how it works. The brain, as we’ve said, is complex. (That’s the third Brain C.) It’s made up of many parts, all of which have different jobs to do. The upstairs brain, the downstairs brain. The left side and the right side. There are memory centers and pain regions. Along with all the systems and circuitry of the brain, these parts of our brain have their own responsibilities, their own jobs to do. When they work together as a coordinated whole, the brain becomes integrated. Its many parts can perform as a team, accomplishing more and being more effective than they could working on their own.

So that’s what connection does. It moves children away from the banks and back into the flow, where they experience an internal sense of balance and feel happier and more stable. Then they can hear what we need to tell them, and they can make better decisions. When we connect with a child who feels overwhelmed and chaotic, we help move her away from that bank and into the center of the river, where she can feel more balanced and in control. When we connect with a child who’s stuck in a rigid frame of mind, unable to consider alternative perspectives, we help him integrate so that he can loosen his unyielding grip on a situation and become more flexible and adaptive. In both cases, connection creates an integrated state of mind, and the opportunity for learning.”

When a child is so overwhelmed that they cannot listen, it is not time to teach them a lesson. It is only time to connect, to be there with them, to care, to be empathetic and loving. Only after they have calmed down can they be taught.

At the same time, we should never spoil a child. There must be clear expectations and boundaries to follow. A child’s every fleeting desire should not be satisfied indiscriminately. Connection with children is about giving them what they need, not what they desire. Indulging children, lavishing them with rewards, protecting them from all their struggles and pains, teaches them to be entitled overtime. What a child needs is love and attention. They need to learn to be happy with what they have, to grapple with difficult challenges, and to master themselves.

“Ultimately, then, kids need us to set boundaries and communicate our expectations. But the key here is that all discipline should begin by nurturing our children and attuning to their internal world, allowing them to know that they are seen, heard, and loved by their parents — even when they’ve done something wrong. When children feel seen, safe, and soothed, they feel secure and they thrive. This is how we can value our children’s minds while helping to shape and structure their behavior. We can help guide a behavioral change, teach a new skill, and impart an important way of approaching a problem, all while valuing a child’s mind beneath the behavior. This is how we discipline, how we teach, while nurturing a child’s sense of self and sense of connection to us. Then they’ll interact with the world around them based on these beliefs and with these social and emotional skills, because their brains will be wired to expect that their needs will be met and that they are unconditionally loved.”

Children’s feelings need to be validated. When their feelings are not accepted, when they are minimized, belittled, and criticized, they will become reactive instead of reflective.

When we tell children to stop feeling upset or else (“don’t talk to me until you’ve calmed down”), children are really being told that they are not loved until they act in a specific way. If they don’t act in the approved way, then they will see themselves as unworthy.

We can acknowledge a child’s storm of emotions without approving of their misbehavior. We can help the child identify what they are feeling, guiding them away from their reactivity. Firstly, though, we must be there for the child, letting them know that their misbehavior isn’t necessarily a judgement of their worth.

When a child is having a tantrum, they will not listen to an adult lecture about what they did wrong. They will feel attacked. Their cortisol will rise, their heart will beat faster, and adrenaline will flood their bodies. They will learn to tune the adult out. Even when the adult is explaining the rules logically, a child will not emotionally be able to listen. They’ll feel hurt, angry, disappointed, and so on, reacting through their lower brains. An upset child is on sensory overload. They need us to listen deeply to them rather than argue, scold, or lecture. We must give children enough time and space, so they can feel comfortable enough to express how they feel.

Then we can reflect back what the child told us. This shows children that they are understood and helps to defuse a charged situation. When a child feels listened to, validated for how they feel, even if their behavior is not accepted, they will respond more openly.

Once children feel receptive, they can then learn the appropriate ways to deal with their emotions. Helping children through their difficult periods — whether from nodding and listening to their struggles, to identifying what they feel and why and what they can do to change — engages their higher thinking functions and deactivates their reactive brains.

We can be more adaptive with how we engage our children, approaching our discipline from an open, compassionate perspective, rather than a punitive one.

Children need a lot of help to grow. Their brains are changing, developing, at different stages. They are highly vulnerable to their environments and need consistent boundaries. They need love and acceptance. They need to not be judged for who they are, but rather, feel they can come to us for safety and security and guidance.

Discipline is not a lecture, a punishment, or a consequence.

It is an opportunity for us to learn, connect, and communicate together.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist (Reflections)

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A skeptic will believe in an idea when there is sufficient evidence for that idea being true. Until then, depending on the quality of evidence and the probability of that idea’s truth, a skeptic will either suspend their judgement or lack a belief in such an idea.

Skeptics are open to many diverse — even seemingly paradoxical — ideas, but they will not accept those ideas as being true until there is empirical evidence and logic, which supports those ideas.

People who are intelligent and well-educated can still believe in strange, illogical ideas.

Just because a person is smart in one area doesn’t mean that they are smart in another. People are prone to believing in many superstitious ideas like ghosts and fortune telling, elusive fairies and demons and telepathy, knocking on wood for good luck, and peeing on a wart for its removal.

Smart people not only can believe in strange ideas, but they often argue for their beliefs much better than the average person, rationalizing for their side, while being resistant to any counter arguments.

Often someone will claim a supernatural event happened to them, such as one of their dreams predicting a future event, while ignoring all those times when their premonitions did not occur.

It is normal to remember a significant event while ignoring an insignificant event.

Such events, which may feel personally unique, may occur regularly in a probabilistic sense. All insignificant events, however, are often not accounted for, when considering the totality of such events. The hits are recorded but the misses are not.

Science is a method that leads to provisional conclusions. The scientific method aims at objectivity under external validation. Science is based on rational thought and logic and evidence.

There is a tension in science between skepticism and credulity. For paradigm shifts to occur in the field, scientists need to be willing to challenge established views. They need to criticize the cherished beliefs of civilization as well.

What distinguishes science from pseudoscience is the validity of each claim, the consistency of those claims with other theories, the quality of the evidence presented, the ability of each claim to be tested, and so on.

It is important to be rigorous when investigating claims because people are deeply flawed thinkers, prone to biases, misconceptions, and perceptual mistakes.

Many people are seduced by compelling anecdotes while never considering the evidence behind those anecdotes. Anecdotes are not data, no matter how many people believe in them, unless they are backed by sufficient evidence.

The burden of proof is on those who make claims rather than on those who do not agree with the claims presented. One doesn’t have to disprove every story invented.

When confronted with claims, a skeptical person should look for sound reasoning. It is all too common for proponents of a belief to argue on irrational, self-contradictory grounds, based on enthusiasm and tradition and appeals to emotion.

One fallacy that individuals use is the argument from ignorance. They may say that if they or anyone else cannot explain X, then their proposed explanation must be true. It is much more rational to say “I don’t know” than to assume a conclusion.

Another fallacy comes from equating correlation to causation. The human mind naturally seeks relationships and patterns. At the same time, many events may be coincidental, or probable, but not necessarily connected.

Often during heated arguments, people use ad hominem fallacies. They insult their opponents rather than addressing their arguments directly.

Even if such insults are true, that still doesn’t invalidate the other person’s argument. An ad hominem argument, rather than dealing with the substance of the argument, acts to distract.

Along with these fallacies, among others, people have cognitive biases.

Many biases aren’t conscious.

Individuals look for ideas that confirm their belief systems while filtering out, neglecting, and ignoring contrary evidence.

They may form conspiracies about past events once they’ve been given the benefit of hindsight.

They may justify poor choices with rationalizations while ignoring any opposing evidence.

It is common for individuals to consider their views to be rational. They will see their opponents, however, as emotional.

There are many cognitive biases such as trusting in authorities only because they are authorities, generalizing a trait of one person to all people of that same group, and focusing on negative ideas much more than positive ideas.

Scientists are as prone to wrong thinking and biases as everyone else. That is why there needs to be a rigorous standard for evidence.

People have evolved to find patterns, even when there are none, and look for threats, even when none exist.

Scientific thinkers must be able to distinguish what is real from what is an illusion, while not being seduced by the appearance of patterns.

It’s normal for people to ascribe agency to natural patterns (like the constellations) and find great significance in probability (like a pair of dice landing on the same number three times in a row).

When something that is unexplained, mysterious, or unknown gains validity through evidence, it will eventually be incorporated into science. Ideas that cannot be tested, or analyzed, under peer-reviewed standards, will still be considered unknown, meaningless, or unexplained, until there is reason and evidence in support of them.

Science is a method that filters good ideas from bad ideas. It is a long, self-correcting process.

Even the most obvious, ordinary, basic phenomena, which are assumed as true by most people, must still undergo the same amount of scrutiny as the wildest ideas. Even ideas that appear to have evidentiary support, overtime, may be falsified. Superior models may replace outdated models, new evidence may challenge an existing paradigm.

With so many claims about what reality is, it is important to be skeptical. As Carl Sagan, a famous scientist and public educator and author, once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Scientists don’t have the burden of proof to disprove every idea. It is up to those who make positive assertions to prove themselves.

At the same time, scientific thinkers must be aware of the vast number of biases that interfere with how people determine what evidence is credible. Hindsight bias, confirmation bias, and other such biases, affect all people to a degree. Science is a method that cuts down on these biases overtime.

No scientific principles are absolute. All scientific principles must be tested and theories must lead to predictable results. It is important to question what is seen as acceptable and challenge the premises for any given conclusion.

Claims about reality should always be taken as false, meaningless, or unknown, until those claims gain enough evidence in support of them being true. Then they should be accepted tentatively. They may later be shown to be outdated, false, limited, full of errors, and so on.

Not all claims are created equal. Many claims are often misperceptions, misconceptions, hallucinations, lies, manipulations to serve ideological motives, speculations, opinions, untestable ideas, and so on, and so on.

Those who believe in irrational ideas can influence not only themselves, but those around them. They can form groups, which are destructive to the well-being of others. Their groups can create divisions in society, where the out-group is seen as less than human. Groups tend to conform to in-group values, while being hostile to outsiders.

They will listen to authorities that support their views, even when those authorities are wrong. Eloquent speakers can persuade uncritical people to follow them, even when their words are manipulations.

People can be convinced of outlandish ideas. Even smart people can fool themselves. There are no exceptions.

It is common for humans to believe in supernatural events because humans are hardwired to be social creatures, to feel good when they believe in transcendent ideas, following what those in their closest environments follow. There may even be a genetic predisposition toward believing in supernatural ideas, inherited from past ancestors. Culture then shapes what is passed down, providing a structure for what is already there.

People are natural-born believers. While it is crucial for individuals to be open to the unknown, to novelty and a future of what could be, they must not be so open that they neglect to critically think about issues that affect their well-being and the well-being of others.

To be duped into joining cults and stupid fads, into voting for politicians who promote disastrous policies for the environment, to be fooled into ordering sham products, donating life savings to charlatans, and wasting years on false solutions, while spreading misinformation to those who are nearest, is not only unwise.

It may ultimately be dangerous.

Cosmos in a Tree: Wordless Poems (excerpts)

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“Cosmos in a Tree” is a book of short poems written in the Zen spirit.

It is a finger pointing to the moon, a glimpse of direct experience.

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“A haiku is not just a pretty picture in three lines of 5 — 7 — 5 syllables each. In fact, most haiku in English are not written in 5 — 7 — 5 syllables at all — many are not even written in three lines. What distinguishes a haiku is concision, perception and awareness — not a set number of syllables. A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature. As Roland Barthes has pointed out, this record neither describes nor defines, but ‘diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation.’ The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness. In the mind of an aware reader it opens again into an image that is immediate and palpable, and pulsing with that delight of the senses that carries a conviction of one’s unity with all of existence. A haiku can be anywhere from a few to 17 syllables, rarely more. It is now known that about 12 — not 17 — syllables in English are equivalent in length to the 17 onji (sound-symbols) of the Japanese haiku. A number of poets are writing them shorter than that. The results almost literally fit Alan Watt’s description of haiku as “wordless” poems. Such poems may seem flat and empty to the uninitiated. But despite their simplicity, haiku can be very demanding of both writer and reader, being at the same time one of the most accessible and inaccessible kinds of poetry. R. H. Blyth, the great translator of Japanese haiku, wrote that a haiku is ‘an open door which looks shut.’ To see what is suggested by a haiku, the reader must share in the creative process, being willing to associate and pick up on the echoes implicit in the words. A wrong focus, or lack of awareness, and he will see only a closed door.”

Cor van den Heuvel

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Civilized to Death (book review)

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“An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted.”

— Arthur Miller

Modern civilization is seen as necessary for “progress.” With every breakthrough in technology, science, medicine, and so on, with every new comfort and convenience, advancement and novelty, what is the cost?

People often assume that progress is steadily increasing, and at a linear pace, believing that the livelihoods of the hunter-gatherers were primitive, dangerous, and simple, despite their survival for most of human history.

Since the domestication of animals and move into agriculture from small bands of roaming hunter-gatherers, civilizations have both developed and fallen from a depletion of natural resources, conflict, famine, and disease. Populations have become denser and temperatures have risen to new global extremes every year.

Humanity, overcome with dissatisfaction and anxiety, has rushed into a shadow future. They have chased after novelty without knowledge, or concern, for the consequences of their desires.

Americans, for example, generally work longer hours than in past decades while the global competition rises and wages stagnate. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Rates of people who struggle with starvation, who earn ten dollars a day, who can’t afford to deal with a medical emergency, increases steadily.

Civilization doesn’t necessarily imply progress. Hunter-gatherers are not inherently miserable. One must ask always when speaking of progress, “progress for whom?”

What seems like progress for one person, group, community, or civilization, may be contextually a benefit, but not absolutely. Furthermore, what is normalized for one group may not necessarily be “good” for that group or another group, but rather, an adaptation overtime of that group to an advantageous environment. Those who do not gain any benefits from that environment would suffer, die, or merely not flourish enough to gain much from it.

In our modern age of progress, millions of people have been displaced from their homelands due to war, conflict, famine, persecution, and climate change. More species are increasingly going extinct while the ocean currents have slowed down.

While every unstoppable civilization such as Rome, Sumer, and Ancient Egypt, have all crumbled in the past, they have done so regionally. If our civilization falls, it will happen at a global scale.

Hunter-gatherers may not have been idealistically perfect but those who survived and succeeded through reproduction did so from trust, cooperation, and generosity. They would’ve perished under brutal environments if not for their interdependence and mutual interests.

The days of the hunter-gatherer are over, however. It is too late to turn back to the prehistoric world. Population densities have swelled beyond small bands of undomesticated hominids.

“We’ve lost too much of the knowledge and physical conditioning necessary to live comfortably under the stars. If our ancestors were wolves or coyotes, most of us are closer to pugs or poodles.”

Even though no one can return back to prehistory, it’s possible to learn from the past to create better conditions for the future. If stories of the past are misused, misunderstood, or abused, however, then the accepted narrative of civilization can imprison just as much as free.

There’s an assumption of prehistory as being a Hobbesian nightmare where people brutalized each other in harsh environments to survive and reproduce, where primitive peoples lived lives that were “nasty, brutish, and short.”

While precivilization is condemned, civilization is often seen as perpetually improving, all despite human nature’s competitive, aggressive, and bloody history. This view of humankind is routinely used in the justification of slavery and war and colonialism. Rather than connecting more intimately with one another, civilized people are conditioned to not trust each other, to compete, to feel shameful over their bodies and instincts.

There may be a more accurate story than the Hobbesian one. When studying modern foragers, who have similar relationships with their environments as peoples did thousand of years ago, from how they settled conflict and had children to how they hunted and built their homes, structural insights into their groups can help researchers see the past.

Looking deeply at the anatomical/physiological functions of the human body, especially since human beings have evolved for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers (longer than as agriculturalists), provides a glimpse into the past as well.

“Well over 95 percent of the time that our species has existed we’ve lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers moving about in small bands of 150 people or fewer.”

These bands, despite how long ago they lived or where they had come from, were egalitarian, mobile, social, and generous. Power was fluid rather than hierarchical, based more on social value than status and property. Women were given similar opportunities to men, gaining respect for their intelligence, skill, and integrity, while being able to make decisions that would profoundly impact the rest of the group.

With these universal traits displayed among the hunter-gatherers, however, there are still no absolutes. Exceptions of child abuse, unequal treatment between the sexes, disproportionate power, and so on, can exist and have before, but never on the scale of hierarchical, agriculture-based societies.

While hunter-gatherers, traveling with minimal shared supplies, relied on each other for reciprocal generosity, treating each other as extended families, giving and receiving in order to survive and to grow, when the State first arose, people became inferiors, subservient to kings, priests and dictators, being taxed and controlled by those with unequal power.

For hunter-gatherer tribes, an individual is prized for their intelligence, hunting skills, and so on. When they exceed their skills through arrogance, selfishness, pride, or an unequal amount of power, they are laughed at, socially exiled or eventually killed. As long as they provide social benefit to the group, they are mutually benefited themselves. In agricultural societies, however, there is a conflict regarding the messages of promoting generosity and support and sharing, competition and survival and private ownership. Large populations with complex civilizations are prone to conflicting value systems.

Nevertheless, humans have complex moralities based on social values that were deeply woven into their biological makeup for thousands of years to ensure their survival.

While civilization has definite benefits, what is the long term cost of perpetual expansion? Civilization has solved many problems while simultaneously being the reason for those problems to exist in the first place. Everything from gum disease to obesity, depression to anxiety, overly medicated children to heart attacks, rose since the advent of civilization rather than before it.

Agricultural societies may have developed independently from each other, thousands of years ago, due to extremes in climate. As the hoarding of resources began, complex social hierarchies did as well. These hierarchies may have led to more conflict among groups, artistic creation, nuanced relationships with the dead, ritualistic practices, warfare, and enslavement.

While hunter-gatherers revered the flow of nature and relied on it with their lives, the agriculture-based civilizations dominated and controlled it. Rather than mobility and sharing, humans became sedentary and owned more possessions. They became conditioned by the institutions that had arisen with their settlement. As humans domesticated plants and animals, they too became domesticated.

When civilizations encountered foraging societies, they often brutalized them through the theft of land, enslavement, human sacrifice, rape, wanton murder, exploitation, torture, spread of disease.

The stronger the civilization, the greater the need for using up natural resources while expanding to conquer other places and peoples. Those apart from civilization were seen as less human and treated as such. And within powerful civilizations, the disparity between wealth and freedom grew between the powerful and the powerless.

Rather than living as an egalitarian web of relationships in a band of intimates, rather than as an extended family caring for one another’s benefit, people were treated like property in civilization. These forced participants, who were enslaved and worked until death, who procreated out of necessity for survival, for the labor of the system, who were manipulated by their rulers to keep civilization from collapsing, were not treated as humans anymore. Those who tried to break away from the confines of civilization were severely punished or manipulated into returning out of desperation and systematic coercion.

This practice continues today: “Multinational corporations routinely expropriate land in poor countries (or ‘buy’ it from corrupt politicians), force the local populations off the land (so they cannot grow or hunt their own food), and offer the ‘luckiest’ among them jobs cutting down the forest, mining minerals, or harvesting fruit in exchange for slave wages often paid in company currency that can only be used to buy unhealthful, industrially produced food at inflated prices at a company-owned store. These victims of market incursion are then often celebrated as having been saved from ‘abject poverty.’ With their gardens, animals, fishing, and hunting, they had been living on less than a dollar a day. Now, as slave laborers, they’re participating in the economy. This, we’re told, is progress.”

While civilized people are systematically forced to remain in civilization, they are conditioned to fear any alternative. They are routinely propagandized with fear of death, fear of old age, fear of outsiders, fear of a dangerous environment, fear of disobeying the structure of society, fear of being different, and fear of questioning.

While fear is being mass communicated to those who serve the system, messages of self-interest are justified as natural for a species that is interpreted as inherently competitive and selfish.

While the social hierarchical system, built upon control and expansion, rationalizes itself under these premises, messages of altruism, generosity, and sharing, which are prominent in foraging groups, are conflicted with and misrepresented.

Foragers nevertheless have some form of social hierarchy, except their structure is in support of social autonomy. People can gain more power in these groups, except at the expense of the group. Those who violate the rules of the group, benefiting themselves at the expense of others, are shamed, excluded, or eventually killed, depending on the person’s effect upon others. Foragers are often quite aware of the social hierarchy in their groups and have ways of keeping a check on power, maintaining egalitarian principles with tradition, stories, humor, and so on.

Another way that foragers have often maintained social harmony is through group fluidity. Members of small bands can leave the group, join other groups, based on climatic conditions, the hunt, and so on. In many tribes, once women are old enough, they leave their families for another tribe. Rather than based on biological necessity, many foragers come together out of a mutual practicality and show attitudes of abundance rather than scarcity.

These behaviors may be influenced from their evolutionary past. Humans share a common genetic ancestor with bonobos and chimpanzees. Those who argue the progress myth often cite chimpanzee behavior as the source for human aggression, conflict, and war, but conveniently ignore the deep human relationship to bonobos. Bonobos are mostly peaceful, resolving conflict with sex and bonding, rather than with war. While chimps do show some organized group violence, bonobos are different.

Whereas hunter-gatherers are highly mobile in small groups, adapting to changing environmental conditions, experiencing occasional food shortages while still being mostly well nourished, millions of people in modern societies, dependent on certain crops or water sources, are often undernourished.

Caloric restriction, which occurs at periods with hunter-gatherers, may actually be healthful, preventing some neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, diabetes, while supporting a longer lifespan.

Foragers don’t necessarily die at an earlier age than those born in agricultural societies. There may be a higher mortality rate among infants and children, which statistically, brings the average of life expectancy down, but those who live usually do so into a healthy old age, similar to those in agricultural societies. Except the children who grow up in the foraging communities had better quality of life in regards to childcare, clean air and water, communal support, etc.

Living in agricultural settlements with swelling populations drastically altered human beings. Status, family dynamics, power, treatment of women and children, food quality, exposure to new diseases, relationship to death, worsened. Even the worship of friendly and nourishing gods transitioned into religions where a God dominated nature and had absolute power with His control. While foraging societies protected their young ones, having an extended family to raise a child, within agricultural societies, children were seen as property, labor, as potential heirs to wealth, as rivals.

Even in modernity, infants and children develop quite differently than those in hunter-gatherer societies. C-sections, which don’t provide the immunological advantages of natural births, less time physically touching an infant, less time breastfeeding, more separation from offspring, contribute significantly to the emotional development in people in agricultural societies. In foraging groups, infants are closely attuned to, nurtured, and emotionally responded to, by dozens of loving caregivers beyond the mother or father(s). They are breastfed longer and supported in a cooperative social world.

“When you receive no significant social support from your society and have to work two jobs just to pay for the daycare that allows you to go to work, nobody can blame you for putting your kids in front of the TV, feeding them what you can afford, and not wanting to spend the night comforting them when they’re restless. Many progressive European societies have policies that replicate hunter-gatherer parenting values by assuring community support for parents via generous maternity and paternity leave, subsidized medical and child care, and free education.”

Societies that support infant/childhood development and a healthy expression of sexuality during puberty correlated with more peace and fewer mental/behavioral problems. In societies where there was less developmental support, such as in the US, the likelihood of violence as well as mental/behavioral conditions rose.

Modern societies have often repressed play in children, healthy sexuality in teens during puberty, homosexuality, and so on, while increasingly over medicating those who show conflicting behaviors to the procedures of the controlling systems. Institutional structures, from religions to governments, have controlled, punished, repressed, misinformed, and shamed people for their natural human tendencies. This has predictably increased the rates of anti-social behavior, anxiety, and depression in young people within industrialized nations.

In hunter-gatherer groups, children and teenagers are treated with respect and autonomy. They play their social roles of hunting, foraging, and tool making, until their play becomes an essential part of the group. Rather than being infantilized, they’re free to become themselves. When they do choose to work, if they choose, it is only for a few hours a day, often in the spirit of play.

Meanwhile in modern civilization, people are working for longer hours while wealth inequality is growing. Even those who own more than 99% of the wealth are trapped within the system, desiring only to acquire more, while the poorest of the population are starving. This inequality creates more distance between people and makes their suffering an abstraction. The wealthy may seem like winners, but with money comes isolation from others, working tirelessly to compete with rich peers, ignoring natural impulses to help those in need, while still feeling unsatisfied. Having a vast amount of money/power makes people detach, have more trouble when reading social cues, feel less empathy for others, while their risk of heart disease, stroke, and depression increases.

Modern civilization deals with death differently too. While in industrialized societies, people are put on expensive machines and treatments, attempting to prolong the quantity of their lifespan (but not the quality) for a miserable length of time, doctors are discouraged from being near their dying patients or frankly giving them the truth of their conditions. Yet in foraging societies, death is present with people. Terminally ill or elderly people are neglected, given an option of committing suicide, killed by a member of the tribe, if they’re no longer able to help the group. Rather than wasting away into nothing, they’re put out of their misery.

Civilized life is no better. Deprived of nature, socially isolated, working more than 40 hours at a job that one hates, paying off debts, consuming more and more medication, pursuing happiness through materialism, people live for a mirage of successes in industrialized societies.

In these same societies, aberrations of behavior, strange thoughts, auditory hallucinations, and so on, are seen as conditions to be overcome, treated, and suppressed. In foraging, shamanistic groups, people experiencing strong hallucinations, for instance, are often integrated as healers in their cultures. They’re supported lovingly rather than repressed.

As more conditions are managed in industrialized nations with prescription medications — often leading to high rates of addiction and overdose — therapeutic psychedelic drugs with little to no toxic effects are demonized in the population. Psychedelics with a long history in tribal cultures as healing agents are penalized severely in the civilized world, despite an assortment of benefits in treating people with depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, etc. Furthermore, psychedelic medicines can lead, under the proper conditions, to enhanced awareness, profound mystical experiences, and long term well-being after an initial dose.

As population exponentially increases in modern civilization, humanity is further devalued. “Endless growth is the ideology of conventional economics and the cancer cell.”

Insight into how humans successfully lived in the past can help those in the present design a world based on inborn, natural values, which allows societies to flourish.

There can be a promotion of cooperation in egalitarian communities, a vast network of people helping each other, or there can be institutions that distort human values, preying on people’s fears, controlling their lives with propaganda and violence and social repression. In the second scenario, “progress” will inevitably lead to extreme climate change, civilizational collapses, planetary ruin.

It will take a radical shift in consciousness for people to work toward the values of environmental protection, egalitarian treatment, communal development, investing in alternative energy sources, applying effective therapeutic approaches to social deterioration, challenging long-standing institutions, and so on. It may even be too late. But there is still hope.

The Art of Communicating (Thich Nhat Hanh)

The Art of Communicating (Thich Nhat Hanh)

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“Mindfulness requires letting go of judgement, returning to an awareness of the breath and the body, and bringing your full attention to what is in you and around you. This helps you notice whether the thought you just produced is healthy or unhealthy, compassionate or unkind.”

When we breathe mindfully, we communicate. We know we’re breathing in, breathing out. In this awareness, we are in tune with our body-mind, with feelings and thoughts, with the environment.

“Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”

When we’re mindful, we’re free. When we’re consumed with anger, anxiety, and fear, we’re trapped. Instead of holding on to our storylines, and avoiding the present, we can release our suffering and return home, again and again.

A lot of our thinking comes from dwelling on the past, controlling the future, imagining scenarios that have never happened. We worry so much. We worry about ourselves, about what other people think of us, about meaning, about money, about everything that we can. We get caught in our ideas, talking, talking, talking, thinking, thinking, thinking. Distracting ourselves with constant amusements and dramas.

Instead of realizing that our perceptions are only perceptions, we mistake them for reality.

When we mindfully breathe, we can return to where we are.

“It’s enjoyable to breathe in, to breathe out; it’s enjoyable to sit, to walk, to eat breakfast, to take a shower, to clean the bathroom, to work in the vegetable garden. When we stop talking and thinking and listen mindfully to ourselves, one thing we will notice is our greater capacity and opportunities for joy.”

Mindfulness lets us open up to our fear, our pain, our sorrow, our love. We don’t run away from life. We become aware of life, nurturing the present, letting go of what causes us to suffer.

We are no longer afraid to be with ourselves.

“We can just continue to follow our in-breath and our out-breath. We don’t tell our fear to go away; we recognize it. We don’t tell our anger to go away; we acknowledge it. These feelings are like a small child tugging at our sleeves. Pick them up and hold them tenderly. Acknowledging our feelings without judging them or pushing them away, embracing them with mindfulness, is an act of homecoming.”

When we know our own suffering, then we can learn to see the suffering of the world. Exploitation, discrimination, racism, poverty, homelessness, war, and so on, cause a lot of suffering to us and those around us. We cannot help others until we look at our own sorrow and fear, pain and anxiety, depression and anger.

We need to listen deeply to ourselves. Only then can we release our burdens. Only then can we stop the destructive patterns that we’ve inherited from our ancestors, from our parents, from our past.

“If a lotus is to grow, it needs to be rooted in the mud. Compassion is born from understanding suffering. We all should learn to embrace our own suffering, to listen to it deeply, and to have a deep look into its nature. In doing so, we allow the energy of love and compassion to be born.”

To be effective at communication, we need to know ourselves. Then we can practice mindfulness, deep listening, and loving speech. Other people may complain, insult us, manipulate, whine, and judge. When we listen deeply with compassion, we can look at people as they are, and not be stirred up emotionally. We can love them without judging them, care about them without giving in to anger and resentment.

As we listen, our purpose is to help others to suffer less. We want ourselves to suffer less too. Instead of judging and blaming, we can be mindfully aware.

When we are not mindful, we will not see our own suffering. Then we will make everyone around us suffer as well. We may believe that we know the people around us, such as our family members and friends and colleagues, but maybe we have never truly listened to them. Maybe we’ve never truly listened to ourselves.

We must be skillful with how we communicate. Do we use words of kindness, compassion, and truth, working to reduce another person’s pain and anxiety? Are we gentle or harsh in our tones? As we begin to understand more about ourselves, we can understand others. We can listen and speak kindly and choose the right words for the right situation.

We can use peaceful language instead of abusing, condemning, judging. We don’t need to exaggerate. We don’t need to speak one way to one person and another way to another person, attempting to manipulate. Our truth can be gentle, consistent, and loving.

Not everyone has the same perception or understanding. When we talk, we can adapt ourselves to each person, learning about how they think and feel. Not everyone will be receptive to the same stories, the same messages, and the same knowledge.

Our speech should be used for well-being and healing. When our speech causes ill-being and suffering, then that is wrong speech. We can make those around us feel loved through our presence, through our gentleness and care.

As we look into ourselves, we know that we’re not perfect. We have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. We feel pain and joy and compassion and fear and anger and on and on, just like everyone else.

We don’t have to judge ourselves as bad, because we have positive qualities too, but we don’t have to swell with pride either, because we make mistakes too. No one sees us for who we are in totality. They are only partly right. We don’t see everyone else for who they are in totality either. People may have many experiences, feelings, and thoughts that we will never be aware of.

When we feel angry, we neither need to act nor suppress our anger. Anger may have a sense of urgency to it, but when we act, we often escalate the situation.

Rather than falling into the same habitual patterns, we can treat our anger with tenderness. We can embrace our energy and breathe and let go. Even a small pause can be beneficial.

We can ask ourselves whenever a thought arises, “Is that thought right? Are we really sure?” Instead of committing to a wrong perception, we can slow down and question our certainty.

Unless we can communicate mindfully with ourselves, we cannot improve the quality of our relationships. With mindfulness of suffering, compassion arises. When we see the suffering in others, we want to help. We cannot force others to become who we want them to be, but we can change ourselves.

When we are compassionate to ourselves, our desire to help our communities grows.

Our love grows.

Our lives are interwoven. We are dependent on each other for survival and well-being. If our communities can listen to each other, communicating with loving-kindness and non-judgmental awareness, we can systematically change our civilization.

We can only help each other when we are engaged.

We can only help each other when we care.

Buddhist Perspective on Schadenfreude

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Image from beyondmeds.com

Definition of schadenfreude:

Enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.

Satisfaction or pleasure over another’s misfortunes.

Feeling happiness when someone fails, makes a mistake, or is humiliated.

There are people who make us suffer. We often feel that our lives are more difficult, stressful, painful, and so on, because of what they have said and done. These people may harm those we care about, help our enemies, or support ideas we disagree with.

It is easy to wish those difficult people misfortune and then take pleasure when they fail. It is easy to water the seeds of judgement, comparison, and sadism.

We must be mindful of how we think and not reinforce ideas of division, resentment, bitterness, and discrimination. Instead we need to look at ourselves and see our own suffering, so that we can find compassion for everyone. Even those who do us harm.

When we take pleasure in another’s misfortune, we lower ourselves. We fall into darkness in our condemnation, in our judgement, of another’s suffering.

What kind of human beings are we when we wish suffering on others?

We may feel a temporary satisfaction over a false sense of revenge, but we are degrading ourselves. We are watering the seeds of hatred, separation, and envy. Instead we need to water the seeds of compassion and loving-kindness.

Instead of looking outward in comparison, we need to know ourselves intimately.

Lessons of Alan Watts

We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.”

We’re not separate from this universe. We’re interwoven in the cosmos, apart of the energetic patterns of spacetime. We’re like waves in an ocean. Always changing, transforming, connected to more than merely ourselves.

The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.

We strain ourselves in our search for ourselves, in our pursuit of an ultimate meaning, believing that we need to be more famous, more successful, more talented, stronger, smarter, better-looking, in love with the perfect spouse, owning a bigger house, and so on.

We cannot enjoy the present moment because we’re consumed with our stories, regrets, future ambitions, dramas. If we do finally achieve all our dreams, we’re left unfulfilled.

Rather than discovering the miracle of life every day, we have ignored life, attaching ourselves to abstract ideas of meaning and success and purpose.

We often sacrifice what is here for what isn’t.

Rather than being truly alive, aware of our joys and sorrows, we lose ourselves in thought. We’re worried about our futures, ambitious for recognition, avoiding what is unpleasant, clinging to more desires.

If we’re always chasing after meaning, we will waste our lives until our lives are over. The point of life is to live life. What matters is the journey itself.

But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.

True wisdom is in knowing what we don’t know. Rather than judging, forming opinions, claiming that only we understand, we need to deeply listen and open ourselves to what is mysterious, uncertain, beyond our current paradigms.

Instead of clinging to notions of Absolute Truth, we can live our questions.

Our models of reality are not reality themselves. Our symbol-systems are only representations of limited knowledge. There is so much in this universe that we don’t know.

Sometimes what we learn is too painful to hear. Sometimes we are too emotionally immature, ignorant, and uneducated to understand fully. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.

We’re only human beings — organizing experience into comprehensible models with our nervous systems, filtering what is “essential” to us from what’s “not essential” (socially, biologically, physiologically), taking in a limited number of signals unconsciously, while not being aware of other signals, while we exist on a tiny planet, in an ever-expanding universe.

We don’t need to form definite conclusions. When we humble ourselves, opening to what is unfamiliar, uncertain, and mysterious, we can grow.

Touching Life: Lessons of Thích Nhất Hạnh

Touching Life: Lessons of Thích Nhất Hạnh

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We live in a world of ill-being, but not in ill-being alone. Where there is ill-being, there is well-being.

Where there is darkness, there is light. There is no birth without death, left without right, inner without outer.

This is a lesson in inter-being.

In non-duality.

We can live a path of well-being. A noble path. Well-being can be found in our every breath, in our every step, in the seeds we plant daily.

We can plant the seeds of loving-kindness, equanimity, generosity, and mindfulness.

What we do, how we think, what we consume, changes us. If we do not plant the seeds of well-being, then our plants will wither away.

Our life is only available now. We can touch the clouds with our minds. We can be aware of the energy changing under all our storylines. Rather than feeling anxiety about the future and regret about the past, we can enjoy this moment. Our freedom comes from being aware.

Right now, let’s smile to our bodies, smile to our minds, smile to our breathing, smile to the sun and trees and rivers and oceans and mountains.

When we drink tea, we can smell its rising steam and taste a gentle warmth that soon fills our bellies. When we are tired, we can lay and sleep. When we are hungry, we can eat.

There is wonder in what we are doing, in our changing lives, but we are often too distracted. We avoid and resist what is.

Is it possible to touch the silky petals of a white flower? To feel a heart in our chest? To step barefoot in sand and sit down and listen to the waves foaming on the shore?