A Creative and Meaningful Life

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The relational model on which life is built is that of the seed. The collection of relationships that define each variety of life is carried through the seed to the next generations. Anything novel added to that collection of relationships that also adds value in terms of successfully relating to the larger environment, is replicated. Over time, only those things that offer sustained value are retained. Novel elements of relationship that enter the biological community but do not offer sustained value eventually fade to extinction.

If we define “creative” as something new and useful; something that enables some valuable behavior, insight, experience etc. that was not previously possible, we can then use this working definition to see biology as a mechanism for the capture, acquisition and preservation of creativity.

The relationships that define biology, as it stands today, are a living chronicle of the collected acts of adaptive creativity between biological entities and the shifting tides of the environment. Some of the values of these relationships are emerging, some fading, but together these valuable relationship entities are being preserved by virtue of the value they offer in the context of the entire community of relationships in which they reside. This is the recipe for a meaningful life: It is to add value in the context of community – to cultivate some valuable behavior, insight or experience and give it away to the whole community of life. To sow those lasting seeds.

The message communicated through this structure of life tells us that what we cultivate is of value when it offers strength to the whole of the community of life. It is the principle of the seed – that we can count the actions we take to contribute to life, but we cannot count the life in our actions if they offer something of lasting value. What we give to each other is the only thing that has the possibility of retaining lasting value. Everything we try to keep to and for ourselves alone is lost.

Our Hunger for Novelty

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We get bored with the same thing after a period of time because the novelty wears off. Hedonic adaptation is the term used to describe how things decrease in their ability to stimulate us over time. A strategy for a satisfied life must include being stimulated with a certain amount of novelty in order to be satisfied. Without, it the core of our sense of satisfaction begins to fade and trouble can arise out of that dissatisfaction.

Some of us are not socialized in such a way that we understand and behave in ways that satisfy our hunger for stimulation constructively. We may crave novelty but not recognize how to respond constructively to that hunger. We might expect others to stimulate us and blame and be disappointed in them when they do not feed our need for stimulation. Some of us destructively attempt to satisfy it by clawing at the fabric of our social environment – perhaps causing drama or reacting to drama. (which is basically the tic and tock of the same drama clock) Still others of us may risk danger and or lifestyle stability just because we’re bored and don’t recognize how to feed our innate need for stimulation.

We can also get caught in a destructive spiral of demands for increasing need for stimulation. Addiction is one form of an over stimulation spiral where an increasing spiral of hunger for stimulation can hijack our capacity to function. In these cases our lives become unstable and spin out of control. If we condense too much rapid change (novelty) into our routine we eventually may be unable to satisfy our own hunger for stimulation and cause a corresponding chaos and depression. The bottom line: It’s important to have a routine, but it’s also important to break it once in a while.

The Echoes of Trauma

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There are many “ifs” that contribute to determining what kind of life we’ll have. Assuming a baseline of physical health; if we’re raised in a social environment that is nurturing; – if we have role models that demonstrate how to deal effectively and constructively with stress; – if we have caretakers that nurture and model nourishing social behaviors toward oneself and others; – if the native talents we have are cultivated and directed toward contributing something of nourishing value in the context of the larger community; – and if we experience a fair amount of stability in our environment; then we have a fair shot at a positive and fulfilling life.

Our brain is a social organ that tunes our local biological functions to deal with the particulars of the environment it perceives it’s going to exist in. Our body builds its notion of “environment” from external signals. Particularly significant are the environmental cues we receive in the womb, at birth, and in the early formative years of life and later in adolescence. Not all of us get dealt a hand that inclines us to a high probability for success.

The perfect developmental environment is rare. The fact is, some of us are reared in an atmosphere laced with trauma and part of our developmental equipment is a biological profile that is inclined to have a well developed response to trauma. Fear is the primary response and the “fight or flight” behaviors that flow from fear shape our experience of life.

Trauma can be classified into two broad categories as situational or generational. There are also two types of intensite; single blow trauma (an acute sharp short duration type) and repeated trauma (a prolonged and repeated type):

Situational trauma stems from circumstances beyond control that either erode or explosively destroy the expectation of stability and/or manageable circumstances in life. Situational trauma can be acute or chronic in nature. Acute examples are things like a random shooting, a car accident, a house fire or a sudden death. Chronic situations can be a protracted health decline, a livelihood in jeopardy or other long term stressors.

Once trauma depletes or destroys of our sense of security, our body learns to replace the calm confidence we need to cultivate nourishing social bonds with fear. We develop defensive and protective behaviors that take many forms to compensate for the fear. Our reality becomes more reactive and stressed as a result. Our reaction to trauma can spiral into a self reinforcing prison of defensive and/or aggressive behavior cycles that trap us in a circle of stress.

Sometimes situational trauma is both acute and chronic like an accident with long term consequences. It can also be any number of life circumstances which influence our biology to divert large amounts of energy to protection and defense. In other words, our lives can be defined by overreaction to what is actually going on in the moment so we never get to live in the moment – we never get to simply smell the roses or enjoy a sunset because we are on edge. Trauma rewires our brain on a fundamental level. This rewiring can significantly change the face of what we experience for the rest of our lives.

Generational trauma is trauma of the institutional kind; it is a social tradition built of micro and macro traumas woven into the fabric of everyday social experience. Wars or severe environmental hardships can be the original source, but the response behaviors have become institutionalized as part of the culture. Because of our social nature, trauma can become a contagious way of life rooted in the social structures of families and communities. This generational and communal kind of trauma often takes the form of abuse, passive and active aggression, relational instability, destructive forms of acting out, addictions, toxic over protection, distortions of reality as a hiding place and magical thinking, hoarding, destructive enabling and relationships defined by broken promises that are embedded in the social climate.

Trauma shapes our view of the world. It may be that the notion of individual property rights arose as a defense out of historic traumas such as famines and the need to hoard in order to survive harsh winters, droughts, ice ages and the like. The common thread about culturally instilled trauma is that the social environment communicates clearly that nothing is certain – that abundance and stability are illusions and nothing can be counted on unless some extreme measures are taken. A harsh edge can develop in a person or culture that suffers trauma.

In our early years our brains attempt to assess and prepare us for the social landscape we will need to eek out a living. If our brain sees a climate of abuse and betrayal, it wires itself to live and function in that kind of environment. Toxic social settings of all kinds can damage and destroy the potential we have to negotiate our adult social environments in nourishing and effective ways. They can trap us beneath the threshold of our full potential. There is also a preservation effect as we project and perpetuate what we expect from reality onto our social landscape. We can become trapped in world where our vision is limited by our own prejudices. This can induce cycles of stress that not only come from external sources, but that we learn to cultivate ourselves.

The plain reality is; not all of us get what we need to realize a fulfilling and satisfied life. We may know people who walk upright and seemingly function in the adult world, wielding adult responsibilities, yet possessing the emotional frailty, nearsightedness, temperament, and crude self centered social skills of children. These are the descendants of trauma: People who live and cultivate circumstances characterized by defense and aggression on a regular basis. We can be structured to unknowingly reject anything that could bring stability to our lives so that our body can be prepared for the chaos we project on our future. We might reject those capable of loving us and are instead attracted to those that will reject us. The fact that this kind of behavior often brings the chaos we fear goes unnoticed. Instead the chaos we induce is seen as proof that our fears were founded. Our reality can become increasingly reactive perpetuating the trauma.

Trauma can wire us to live a life frozen in a state of stress. We may change the superficial paint job, but the emotional cycle repeats. Strings of failed relationships, addictions or destructive attachments to people and behaviors that destroy intimacy and stability become the norm. We simultaneously pass along our particular brand of reality and behavioral coping mechanisms to those unfortunate enough to come within our toxic sphere of influence. In effect; we unwittingly become the very toxin that once damaged or destroyed us.

Our biology is geared to deal with fear in specific ways. One common understanding of stress behavior is called the fight or flight response. This is when we instinctively avoid or confront fearful situations. Another lesser known strategy is called the “Tend-and-Befriend” response. This involves responding to fear by cultivating a protective social layer. This tend and befriend response is arguably another form of defensive flight.1 In all cases, we respond by either defensive or offensive behaviors. We might also blend these strategies bouncing between fight and flight or combining the two, but the foundation of stress responses are centered on fight and flight.

Trauma can lead to things like behavioral addictions and a wide variety of autoimmune diseases like arthritis, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and so on. A host of mental disorders like PTSD, anxiety and panic disorder are also part of the realm of possibilities. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is yet another party favorite of unresolved trauma. With an uncontrollable compulsive focus on things that do not resolve, but avoid the trauma, OCD is a classic avoidance (flight) technique.

Eating disorders are another common part of the behavioral repertoire of unresolved trauma. Cycles of conflict are also common to sufferers of unresolved trauma as is the practice of developing relationships based on an unhealthy demand for protection. Hoarding and becoming emotionally dependent on people or groups as protectors is sometimes seen. Conflict, avoidance or tend-befriend behaviors are a common thread that runs through the behavior and experience profile of unresolved trauma sufferers.

The fight response is often expressed through a compulsion to have excessive control over others, hyper competitive personalities, narcissism, hyper-dominance, or an inordinate drive to control in any other form as a means of cultivating the illusion that we’re in control is a fight response. Fighters often attract “flighters” (tend and befriend is a form of flight). The fact that our compulsions are in control often goes unnoticed by us. Response to trauma acts as a seed that produces more traumas.

The work it takes to rewire our brains to effectively deal with reality on reality’s terms is not easy. It is also not something a sane person would recommend we attempt to undertake ourselves if we have experienced life altering trauma. It is also unwise to attempt to get help from someone who shares the same pain. Unless an individual has experienced a resolution and is living a stable life, they are not fit to be healers even though they are often enlisted by trauma sufferers.

The potential for remedy does however start with a recognition within us that there is a problem. This recognition is the starting place. If we examine the relationship landscape of our lives and see repeating patterns of stress and out of control situations, or the erosion of relationships and activities that are necessary to sustain our life, this is a sign we need help to work through these residual echoes of trauma. As has been said in many ways; “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

The echoes of trauma are not typically something we can think our way out of. Remember; trauma rewires our brain to relive stress. Our brain becomes seasonally habituated to produce the chemicals that drive the defensive and aggressive behaviors associated with fear. Establishing the discipline to act our way out of trauma with behavioral and environmental changes is very difficult without outside help, and arguably it is also unnecessary. There are people well trained to guide others out of the prison trauma can lock us in.

Words can help us recognize, but they cannot typically bring resolution to trauma. We are not human knowings, we are human beings, and being is what needs to be re-sculpted to bring a resolution to self defeating behavioral drives that arises out of the soil of fear. Resolution takes action. The help of an experienced guide to deal with the real situation is essential because the echoes of unresolved trauma will reverberate for a lifetime as well as spread.2 The alternative to dealing with embedded fear is to relive the trauma over and over.

Here are some useful articles on dealing with the aftermath of trauma:

References:

2Here is some additional information on how trauma rewires our brain.

http://soundmedicine.org/post/childhood-trauma-leads-brains-wired-fear

The Nature of Concentration And Creativity

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Most of the work our brains do is involved in the task of shutting out distractions. It takes energy to crowd out distractions in order to focus on a narrow band of things. This exclusion process performed by the brain is the very nature of what we call focus and concentration. When we get tired, we run out of energy to keep shutting other things out so we lose focus. This loss of focus is also why most creative and inspired moments happen when we’re tired. For many of us, being tired is the only time we get to see the bigger picture.

It is important to afford ourselves some time to wander the streams of consciousness.

Happiness is Inside-Out

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The whole world starts the lens through which we see it. Charles Swindoll once said; “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it.” Some of us look for happiness on the outside, some expectation we overlay on our world. While the outside is of some consequence, it it the inside that shapes most of what we see and experience. The same way a seedling must first develop in the darkness of the soil before developing the strength to show itself to the rest of the world, the soil from which our public identity emerges largely determines what we experience. Happiness is an inside-out journey.

The Origins of Faith

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We are a species extremely well endowed with the capacity for faith. Faith is defined here as believing without necessary and sufficient evidence to hinge a particular position to reality. Instead of objective evidence, faith is supported with things like authority, popularity, wishful thinking, charisma, trust and force. Faith is sometimes a blend of reality and these other things, but the portion that is faith is defined here as the portion that is unhinged from objective reality. Along with the ability to dribble abstractions out of our face and other appendages to describe what’s real, we also use these abstractions to craft images that aren’t real, or that are so distorted they barely have a toehold in reality.

Even greater than our ability to craft unhinged ideas, we’re able to believe them with ease depending on circumstance. We may have the illusion that our senses produce a fairly accurate rendering of reality, but far more of our biological wiring is dedicated to produce a “useful” image than is dedicated to produce an accurate one. Accuracy is a surprisingly expendable commodity in the human biological framework.

Adelson-Checkershadow-Illusion01To illustrate the useful rendering factor of our biology we can look at this image; square “A” and square “B” are identical in color, but our brain renders square “B” lighter in color. Our brain doesn’t render things as they are, it interprets information and conjures up what it thinks will be useful for us to navigate. Our senses are notorious among those that study them closely for filling in the gaps. Accuracy is not a priority, useful is the priority. The fact that our brain renders useful, and not accurate, images has profound implications when it comes to what we can reliably believe with certainty. This is especially true when we consider how socially useful it is to believe the things our in-group does. It is also significant when we consider the social currency we gain from the ability to be influential in getting social traction for our own notions in the social economy.

Adelson-Checkershadow-Illusion03This “useful over accuracy” aspect of our biological senses is not confined to the relationship we have between the internal and external world. It is also true of the relationship we have within ourselves. For most of us, accuracy is a shadowy afterthought even when it comes to understanding ourselves or at best, a hard fought and tenuous discipline that requires extreme vigilance.

Faith can be seen as a one of the “useful” renderings of the mind. Faith and subjectivity are far more powerful players in the global social economy than is objectivity. Although we have many a trinket produced by technologies that are inseparably grounded in reality, faith still dominates our everyday lives. Most humans believe some set of ideas with no empirical grounding. One common faith based belief is that we are separate from the rest of biology, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Somehow we see ourselves as far superior. We support our superior notions with various abstract special endowment qualifiers such as we are of divine origins, or use our capacity for symbolic language as a means of generating distance between us and the rest of biology. The bottom line is our conversation with the unknown is a fertile spawning ground for magical thinking.

Maybe it’s a cosmic irony that the most essential questions about life are also the most elusive to answer with tangible evidence, but here we are, mining the dark for illumination. “Why are we here? Why do we die? Do we have a purpose, and if so, what is it?” As questions like these come into focus, we attempt to put some structure on them. So far what we’ve been able to extract from beyond the horizon of our senses are various flavors of abstract bubblegum – wordy wads we can chew on and blow a few abstract bubbles with, but that lose their flavor when exposed to the direct light of reality. The fact that reality doesn’t agree with and/or support our ideas doesn’t seem to deter us from believing them. A few of us attempt to brave the unknown using what’s real as the measure of truth, but globally speaking, our most common relationship with the unknown is to sacrifice the darkness on the alter of false certainty.

Our penchant for faith could be a quirk of evolution formed on a backbone of contradictory needs; one being able to respond rapidly and the other to gain the advantages that careful rational thought has to offer. This internal competition between the reactionary and the carefully considered may have set us up for a shadowy relationship with ourselves. This could have been the spawning bed for our love affair with the mystical.1

Any exploration we attempt on the parts of ourselves that defy analytic dissection would naturally bring about a litany of guesses. There is an inverse relationship between the level of rational insight we are capable of using and the perceived level of urgency with which we see a given situation. The more urgent we perceive a situation, the less useful the higher functions of our brain. Higher functions essentially shut down or are significantly diminished when we are under perceived threat.

Perhaps the more recent arrival on our biological scene of rational thought means this system is as yet undeveloped, therefore gets easily swamped by emotion. It may also be that the slower speed of our rational capacities is the reason they’re so easily overwhelmed by the older, more quickfire and far more established portions of our biology.2 It could be that our slower functions cannot grasp the chaotic rapidity with which our reactionary functions operate. Like the particle trying to understand the wave, we cannot know the position and the velocity at the same time so we are left with generalized pointers and probabilities.

We’re also biologically equipped to focus on novel events. When we face novel things we’re triggered into a heightened state of awareness. It’s not difficult to see the survival value of this, but this heightened state is not a fertile environment for processing new things using our thin and questionable capacities for critical thought.

When we are young, we are highly plastic. The need to adapt to new environmental conditions specific to us is thought to be the foundation of this early developmental plasticity. The same way a fight or flight situation diverts energies away from immediately unnecessary functions to the ones that serve our urgent needs, we adapt to the perceived relationship climate during our developmental stage. If the environment is stressed, our biological faculties will be more inclined to be reactionary. As we age, in mass the generation takes hold of the social narrative and uses the established channels to react. The general aversion older adults have to the new could explain the mechanism by which traditional ideas and rituals are preserved. Because that segment of the population operated the controls, perhaps it strives to maintain relevance. This can also cause a situation where the ante to get in the game is to lay claim to observing the status quo.

No matter the cause, we use faith to defend against the fear that comes with dawning awareness. Faith stands in when evidence is lacking, or is inconveniently destructive of what we’re emotionally invested in. We may find the idea of expiring into nothingness upon death unbearable, so we invent abstractions as a coping mechanism. Our compulsive tendency to explain the inexplicable overwhelms our capacity to be rational. The irony is that the things we use to defend ourselves may become the enemy of clear vision. We become emotionally attached to ideas that we then defend as we would any other part of our person.

Perhaps the faith based ideas that crop up from the soils of the unknown initially caught on as a means to reassure our young somewhere back in time. Children by nature are profoundly inquisitive. Parents are inclined to give them some kind of grounding so they can function in the world. Quenching fears would be one of the priorities. Couple this parenting drive with a dim awareness of cause and effect and we can see how comforting lies and misperceptions could eventually morph into widely accepted and largely unquestioned facts.

The way ideas take root in both individuals and cultures is like the campfire that crosses a threshold from unviable without direct support to one increasingly hungry for fuel. It can be difficult for an idea to catch on, but once it does, we tend to embrace and spread it. After it’s well established it becomes part of the social currency. We generally accept the ideas we are bathed in from youth as fact. If threatened, our ideological identity is social flesh, we protect and defend it as we would our body. Tradition is only one of the ways false ideas are transmitted and perpetuated; authority, popularity, among other social pressures are mechanisms that propagate and perpetuate myths.

An “availability cascade”3 is a social phenomena where a self-reinforcing communication loop causes certain kinds of collective beliefs to take root in a culture. When an idea is expressed simply and seems to explain something complex, it rapidly gains social momentum. The more popular, the more it generates a feedback loop of further spreading and acceptance within a culture. After it reaches critical social mass, people adopt it because other people have already adopted it.

The reason it spreads is due to a combination of its unique nature and new found popularity. We are genetically prone to pay attention to new or unusual things. We are also prone to do things to fit in with our group. Availability cascades cause widespread acceptance of ideas regardless of whether the people in fact fully believe in the idea they now express. The need for social acceptance overwhelms our critical thinking capacities.

It’s possible we cling to unfounded ideas out of a need for axioms by which to navigate. We act on ideas we believe are true, not necessarily those that are true. This can make the skill of persuasion an extremely valuable social currency. As a result we may have developed the skill to deceive a means of protection or establishing an elevated more secure place in the world.

If our goal is to avoid the hazards that arise when we drive blind through life we might want explore why we feel so compelled to fill in the gaps in our awareness. We might also want to explore what weakness in our sensory faculties enables us to so readily confuse words with reality?

We are tickled by the unknown, unable to stop responding unless we do something to scratch the itch. Maybe comforting delusions provide protection from primal fears that would otherwise distract and cripple us. Once we’ve established illusory control with our words we seem to feel better. In the absence of evidence, we build mental castles fortified with abstractions to maintain our sense of safety and right.

Another function of abstractions in human culture is that they serve as a means of persuasion. Social construction is a phrase used to describe how people are grouped into categories using the language a culture uses to communicate. This categorization trait of linguistics has an enormous impact on lives and relationships of the people within a culture. While classifications can be descriptive of existing realities, they can also have a prescriptive power when fueled by faith. We use language to describe reality, but we also use it to prescribe it. The more people believe in and evangelize a particular stereotype categorization, the more influence it has to shape attitudes and behaviors within a culture. Social constructs can do things like confer artificial privilege to certain segments of a population while oppressing others, all powered by faith in the ideas.

Learned helplessness and false entitlement alike can emerge as social constructs in a culture. Once established, the faith process can sustain itself without the participants being aware of the drivers undergirding their experience. This can lead to something called “pluralistic ignorance” where a majority of group members may privately reject a particular view, but they incorrectly assume that most others accept it, so they go along with it.

While physical wealth might be measured by the amount of resources within the control of individuals or groups, social wealth can be measured in terms of the capacity of individuals or groups to influence the culture. The two are often intertwined, but like length and width are to the area of a rectangle, one cannot exist without the other. There is a largely unspoken social contract based on faith that keeps notions like property and class in vogue.

Character could be measured by the nature of what we spread with our capacity to influence. Money is social construct as is the concept of leaders. Leaders, without the currency of social influence are nonexistent. Social constructs may not be strictly the domain of faith because we could objectively describe the real world implications, but this impact is built on a foundation of faith.

One of the more serious downsides of embracing ideas unhinged from reality is their stagnating effect on developing greater awareness. If we operate with the belief that we’ve arrived at the truth, it comes with a side dish of “no reason to explore further”. The illusion of a complete view of reality can be rendered by virtue of the vision limiting capacity of an ignorant perspective. We can be unknowingly locked in a prison of self induced self perpetuated ignorance.4 Our current beliefs can act as projector onto reality rather than a lens through which to see it clearly. As a result, many, if not all of us live in a world of our own making, blind to the one that is.

Cultures and persons with ideological positions that are significantly detached from the fairly glaring realities of everyday life also tend to be the ones that produce more elaborate webs of ritual display. Maybe the fact that faith based ideas have such a tenuous hold on reality is the self same reason they must be elevated from mundane to sacred – to protect them with shrill emotions from the jaws of reality which would otherwise devour them. Elaborate ritual display is also related to how much a particular ideology is perceived to be under threat from outside influences. The greater the perceived threat, the more social energy goes into demands for oaths and other symbolic commitments to the faith.

Once we develop an established baseline of beliefs about the world, any additional perspectives we’re bathed in can only influence us from the frame of reference we already hold. As a consequence, evidence that counter our belief systems tend to be dis-confirmed by that same belief. Belief can be a powerful anchor for delusion because our vision is shaped by ideas we already hold true.

The ideas we pull out of the dark can start their lives as known symbols and later morph into a perceived reality. We can begin confuse the map we once drew in our minds with the actual landscape. We can then live in a world of partly our own making, semi-detached from the realities that persist despite our inabilities to see them.

Another of the unpleasant side effects of believing ideas unhinged from reality is our tendency to defend them with more passion than ideas that are solidly planted in everyday evidence. Generally speaking, we don’t rush to defend the ordinary if it’s challenged. If someone makes the argument that the earth has no water, it doesn’t typically draw a sharp defensive reaction. We can see touch taste and experience the water for ourselves. When a faith based idea we hold is challenged, we’re far more likely to unsheathe a fat roll of theological duct tape and begin the process of spinning a dogmatic cocoon to contain the heresy.

In some of the more seasoned and gentle organized faiths, the overt intent of spinning verbal cocoons around heretical thoughts and behaviors is to “correct”, “evangelize”, or at least to protect the believer from evil thoughts. Should the theological cocoon be effective at containing the target, it enables a metamorphosis of the wayward to believer. In the absence of a successful conversion, some alternative approaches include demonizing the offender, punishing and/or expelling them from the social circle.

Certain brands of faith come wrapped in a particularly harsh variety of intolerance. In more extreme cultural mindsets, there is no evangelistic step, the expectation is ideological purity and the move is from recognition of “heresy” to expelling the heretic from their own life. Many a squabble and war have been catalyzed or powered directly by ideological fuel. This might stem from the fact that the cost of holding a faith based idea requires a certain denial of reality in the first place. Although denial almost always a factor in supporting all forms of faith, there’s more to it than denial alone.

One reason we’re intolerant of perceived heresy might be found by looking at how our communal social bonds are built. Our integrity as a community is built on a framework of similar entities that collectively nourish each other. Shared symbols are part of what communities are built on. We use shared ideas as social DNA to bind our community identity into a coherent order. If faith is part of the social bonding process, we share and replicate faith. Whatever the social currency is, that’s what people tend to trade in. Acceptance and rejection of the shared ideas define who’s in and who’s out of the tribe – what is “self”, and what is “other”.

The fact that we distance ourselves from, assimilate and/or destroy faiths outside our own may be a cultural echo of the fact that we must devour other forms of life to survive. Our lives depend on sacrificing the “other” so that the “self” may live. We may have unconsciously ritualized our understanding of our nature by crafting myths that we then use to consume each other, expelling some waste farming others as food and so on. Culture may be essentially participating in an interpretive tribal dance that expresses our understanding of our environment and nature.

Unconscious ritualization could explain why cultures that developed in environments that require male dominance to survive tend to produce masculinized rituals, myths and patriarchal bellicose social norms.5 This may also be why hunter gatherer cultures with a variety of food sources tend toward polytheism and pastoral cultures with a narrow band of food options tend toward monotheism. Ritualization could be the outward expression of necessary things like population control for an island nation. The occurrence of feast and famine, seasons geography and so on would also impact the nature of the myths, the language and the rituals that define a culture.

The ideas we hold as “true & false – good & evil” may be symbolic stand ins of our unconscious understanding of our natural biological drives. Drives like food, water, relationship and reproduction are strong themes in this natural mix, and show up in our cultural rituals and surrounding myths. With this in mind, we might be destined to be in conflict with each other as a kind of unconscious acting out of our drives.

Intolerance may be part of our cultural immune system. Our language words and behaviors may be a cultural echo of the various relationships we must have with the environment and the rest of biology. Consequently we may ritualize the devouring and digestion process of “other” in relation to the cultural “self” on our social landscape. The irony here is that we would need to spread a set of pluralistic values in order to craft a sustainable equilibrium that involves the peaceful coexistence of differing cultural ideologies.

The fact that we lack tangible evidence for the questions we find so essential to life may be why we make more frequent ritual displays of our faith once it’s established. Rituals may be the mechanism by which we express our understanding of what is real, but they may also be how we reify the unreal. Because our faith is made real in our minds through ritual, we subsequently defend our cultural traditions as if they are vital organs. Perhaps it’s because they are vital social organs, perceived as necessary for the cohesion and survivability of a particular group.

Religion is by no means the only domain of faith. We make solemn pledges to national flags, ritualize patriotism, take oaths, hold parades, join clubs, fraternities and organizations with shared faith as part of the social equation. Some of us have attachments to political parties with the same fabric of faith and the same levels intolerance, the same evangelical fervor and the same dehumanizing dichotomy between “us” and “them”. We also develop many forms of personal faith. Some of us use the ritual of getting other people to believe a story as the impulse to count that same story as real. Addicts are notorious for this type of propulsion into chaos, as are their counterparts, the enablers. Even though the paint job is different in these two cases, the same underlying engine is based on faith – belief without tangible evidence.

The down side of the way we develop and sustain culture is that it is slower to adapt than the the technological climate we now live in demands. We have been quite used to using everything at our disposal to tame nature and each other. We have now crossed the threshold of development where we need to ask more than “Can we?”, we must now ask “Should we?”. The side dish of aggression that comes with cultural hegemony threatens the network of cooperative relationships we now need to sustain a global culture. We could destroy ourselves with our attachment to ideas that no longer serve to strengthen us, but threaten to destroy us. Faith may have been the womb that protected us through our early development, but like any other womb, it nourishes development to a point, then strangles its inhabitants if they don’t break free of it’s confines.

1For more exploration on this topic, read “The Origin of Faith” by Reg Morrison http://www.zo.utexas.edu/courses/THOC/GeneticSpirituality.pdf

2Two parts of our nervous system are especially significant in taking command whenever it sees fit; the limbic system and the autonomic nervous system. The limbic system is a group of forebrain structures including the hypothalamus, the amygdala, and the hippocampus among others. These are heavily involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. The autonomic nervous system is a control system that acts largely unconsciously and regulates things like heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal, but it is also the primary mechanism in control of the fight-or-flight response. When we react, these systems are at work.

3For more information read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman or

4For a deeper perspective on how this happens from a historical perspective read “Confirmation Bias: What is it, why is it important, and what can we do about it?” thewisdomoflife.wordpress.com/2012/06/09/confirmation-bias-what-is-it-why-is-it-important-and-what-can-we-do-about-it-2/

5For more information on this perspective look up the term; “Cultural materialism”.

The Wisdom of the Tree

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A tree simultaneously stretches itself downward into the soil to draw the water and nutrients as it stretches up and outward toward the sky to capture the glow of sunlight and drink from the atmospheric delights that waft past its swaying branches. In so doing, the tree stitches the elements at its disposal together and if they are sufficient, it uses them as a vehicle to propel itself toward its full potential. A tree breaks the prior symmetries of certain structures, not for the sake of destruction, but to reassemble them into its own likeness – in its own form.

At its crest, the wave of self assembled organization that is the tree matures to relate with other trees and the creatures that call it home, and to cast its offspring to the wind in the hopes of making even more like itself. Like the tree, we need draw from places of nourishment to realize our potential. Like the tree, if we do not stretch ourselves to reach those nourishing places, we are destined live beneath the threshold of our full potential.

We have some measure of choice in where we stretch ourselves. Let’s make sure these places we cultivate our own assemblies are also those that nourish our potential – that contribute substance and strength to the canopy we all live beneath – this community of life we both live in and depend on.

The Map Is Not The Journey

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The words we have at our disposal are quite often beneath the task to sufficiently capture who we are. Not only do they strain under the weight of using them to try and convey our nature one to another; we struggle to fully grasp the depth and breadth of our own being even with self reflection. Sometimes our words are worse than inadequate, they can serve as an outright delusion – a ghost that appears real, but has no substance. Once the ghosts made of words are made real on a wave of belief, they can trap us in a prison of false reality. Though our nature is such that we hunger to share ourselves intimately one to another; that which we are able to share is throttled by the delusions embedded in the symbols we use as fuel for the vehicle we use to journey to that place of intimacy.

We do things for reasons we do not understand. We then perform posthumous verbal autopsies on those behavioral expressions – as if these verbal arrows we sling at our past behaviors explains their causes – they do not. Our words are a map, but often to an unreal place, and we easily confuse the map with the journey – the symbol for the reality.

 So deep is our tendency some of us buzz around like a bee, pollinating the human flowers on our social landscape with words – impregnating them with our position. We then falsely using that belief we have cultivated as sufficient evidence that what we have said is real. In effect, our deceit has turned on us. Our true self is a vast sea of behaviors – the totality of which cannot be carried on the winds of words. It is possible the vision of our full nature is out of reach through our verbal lens.

Some of us ride glistening waves of words as if they are literal stand ins for reality, but they more often bear a resemblance to emotional steam venting from the much deeper super-heated undercurrents that move a thin skin of tectonic plates on the surface of our being. We bow to the polite fiction that our identity can be encapsulated in this thin skin of behaviors we project to the world, when in reality what we show is an extruded crusty distortion of the vastness that lies beneath the surface.

In light of the fact that we so easily conflate the superficial artifacts we adorn ourselves with for the whole picture, we should recognize that understanding ourselves is no easy task. The broken relationship with our personal identity we so commonly grow in verbal soils laced with assumption can render us a blind navigator and a spectator in our own lives. It has been said the unexamined life is not worth living. It is quite possible the unexamined life is not able to be lived at all. How can we have lived if we have never encountered our self, much less anyone else? Have we lived if we have only encountered the false gods we conjured up as a band aid over our loneliness? – A cold comforter in an otherwise unbearable world.

Our words can conjure a false reality that cripples our capacity to engage in the authentic intimate relationships we need for a fulfilled life. This visionary strangulation, fostered on a wave of words, chokes off the vital social nourishment we need. We sink beneath the waves and drown in our own delusion, starving for intimacy, gasping for air with the only tool at our disposal, the same words we drown in.

Those of us taken by the undertow of abstractions fade to the shadowy depths of a life of passionate distraction rather than genuine substance. We may still pretend to search for and move toward a purpose in life, but we have in reality settled for lies that consume our time and never render the nourishing fruit of clarity.

A few of us that get the brief opportunity to recognize the gods to whom we have genuflected our whole lives. From that perch of clarity we realize how false they are and try to warn those who have yet to waste their lives in service of them. This effort typically comes at a time when we have little more opportunity to cease the day and cultivate something meaningful. We spill this wise counsel of experience on those yet in the midst of the storm and they cannot heed our wisdom because they cannot hear it over the din of their own delusion.

One of the most important goals we can set in life is to discover our self – to become aware of the steering mechanisms that drive our experience – and from this awareness – to forge a rudder to point our vessel toward a place of fulfillment. If we are not diligent we will have passed from cradle to grave having never participated in our own lives except perhaps as a commentator, because we were lost in a storm of our own little words.

Biology is The Song The Cosmos Sings

0060-CosmicSongThe behavioral characteristics of biological structures rhyme. From the relatively simple single celled organism, to the entire biosphere there is an echo of form and function on widening scales. Behavioral characteristics at one level in the structure ebb and flow in a wave pattern at other levels.

Each cell inside our body has a skin in the form of a semi porous selective membrane. The membrane is geared to sense, communicate and negotiate relationships with the internal and external environment. These relationships are aligned under such purposes as sensing and responding to the environment, communicating with neighboring cells, letting in nutrients, expelling waste and defending against pathogens that might disrupt the function of the cellular system. The larger organs in our body have these same principles of form and function embedded in them. The external parts of our body including everything from skin, eyes, ears, anus, hands follow the same principles of form and function expressed at the cellular and organ level. The structural ideas reflected at the core are echoed in a rhyming pattern throughout our biological system. We are, in effect, a song written in the fabric of space-time and matter-energy.

If we widen the lens, this same rhyming aspect of form and function echoes outward beyond a single organism. A species develops a skin. Human communication itself is largely based on abstract membranes we call words that form the effect of a skin around a concept. Tribalism is the description of a cultural body that is also an ideological, ritualistic and sometimes geographic or resource driven skin. Expansionism and assimilation is the same principle as eating and digesting external resources. Religion, government, business, and professions as well as academic disciplines also develop this same skin like attribute within their structure.

Of course skin is just one of the many form and function aspects of a biological system that are echoed on many scales. The point here is not to outline all of them, but to describe the rhyming process itself and use it as a platform to gain some insight into ourselves. If we turn our eye toward understanding our nature with any degree of accuracy we must concede that we are far more a reflection – an echo – of the form and function of nature. The more we understand the depths of that communication made to and through the cosmos, the more able we are to navigate with intention through the waters she defines.

The Key to an Intentional Life

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There is a fungus that infects ants and manipulates their thought and behavior patterns.1 Infected ants are rewired by the fungus to change their basic behavioral nature. The rewiring shifts the ants behavior from a role that supports the sustainability of the ant community they depend on for life to instead devote their lives to ideas planted in their head by the fungus. They are now compelled to go on a journey into the forest in search of a place that best serves the purposes of the fungus.

The fungus overlord that has taken over the life of the ant drives them to find a spot suited perfectly to itself under a leaf at an appropriate level off the forest floor. The ant is then driven to attach itself to a major vein on the underside of that leaf where it starves and dies as it is slowly devoured by the fungus it served and sacrificed its life for. The fungus then pops a fruiting body out of the ants dead skull to litter the forest floor with more spores to spread itself to other ants.

The notions that we encounter in our lives that inform us who we are can be a powerful current that steers us much like the fungus steers the life of the ant. Some of these notions come from the inside – who we are without outside influences – what we might aspire or want to be. Some are from the outside – roles that others have planted into us by virtue of whatever prejudicial arrows they happen to carry in their behavioral quiver. Can we forge an intentional live in the midst of currents such as these? It can be difficult. Like the fungus, ideas installed from the outside in can seem like they are our own. Some of us hold ideas about money or other cultural institutions that we will sacrifice our lives for – not because we believe in them, but because we have been infected by them.

One of the necessary ingredients to forge an intentional life is a healthy bit of skepticism about the ideas we hold as our own. These things we think about our self – who we are – may be installed from the outside in, not born from the inside out. Sifting through the pile can be a difficult task. We develop momentum in terms of identity. What we become accustomed to thinking about ourselves becomes harder to see from a different perspective. The longer we hold on to ideas and behave as if these notions are our own, the more we see them as who we are.

Searching oneself honestly and then choosing to be aligned with being the person we choose to be, rather than quietly accepting the roles cast on us by social pressures can be quite a challenge. But it is a necessary one if we don’t want to to be driven to go where the cultural winds take us and end up under whatever leaf it decides is our fate. There is a Lebanese proverb that says; “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.” Each of us must decide if we’re going to be part of the caravan that moves on – making things happen, of one of the dogs that barks out commentary about those happenings.

1

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis