Monthly Archives: February 2013

Playing Our Best Hand at Life

2012 Behaviour Matrix copy

(Photo credit: Robin Hutton)

Each of us is dealt a blended hand of biology and circumstance. It comes through a combination of heredity and the influence of a complex conspiracy of environmental factors. These environmental factors range from hormonal signals communicating to us in our mother’s womb, to caretaker behaviors, local climate and culture. This blend of natural and “nurtural” elements shapes the lens we are launched from the womb of childhood with to navigate our world. Our lens may or may not be tuned to reveal the way to a satisfying experience of life, much less motivate us to cultivate all the relationships necessary to support one. On the contrary, some of us are dealt a hand with a mud speckled lens and the destructive momentum of exaggerated stress, abuse, abandonment, cruelty and exploitation. With this malicious hand shaping the tools with which we navigate, many of us are inclined to live out our fate as a mere reflection of the caustic droplets of relationship poverty we were exposed to – never knowing how to cultivate choice – never knowing how to play a better hand than the one we were dealt.

Our developmental environment sets the tone for the way we see and behave in the world. Our lens inclines us to see what we were taught to see. The behaviors we were exposed to incline us to behave as an ambassador representing the interest of recreating the same environment we are familiar with, even if that environment is destructive. Children raised in abusive environments seek out and cultivate abusive relationships as adults. This is not because they rubbed their hands together as children dreaming of one day graduating from “abuse school” and launching a career in the exciting field of abuse; it is because the abusive emotional brew that they were exposed to inclined them to think and behave in ways that perpetuate that same relational dynamic. Because the signals we pick up to navigate relationships with are both subtle and complex, many people do not understand their own role in perpetuating them. Fortunately, and sometimes unfortunately, perpetuating the behavioral hand we are dealt are what we biological creatures do best.

Animal biology and behavior is magnificently tailored to nurture successive generations to carry on the species. If a species is predatory or parasitic, this is what they both express and preserve. If a species is built on a symbiotic foundation of mutually nourishing relationships, this is what they express and preserve. If a species contains a blend of predatory, parasitic and symbiotic behaviors, that is what they express and preserve as well. There is a fantastic preservation insight that churns underneath the outward behavioral expressions of biological creatures. Biology demonstrates a depth perception and an astounding awareness of how to preserve a particular behavioral climate over time that is far deeper than most creatures are capable of recognizing in terms of conscious self-awareness. This lack of awareness includes most of the human population at this point in time.[1] Even more than this, conscious self-awareness is not sufficient by itself to manifest choice. It can be an accurate map, but it is not the whole journey.

The monarch butterfly cannot explain its migration strategy. It cannot explain why it eats what it eats or breeds successive generations with specialized roles, each geared to migrate on a partial leg of a journey that spans a number of monarch lifetimes. It cannot explain the depths of its own genius to collectively act as singular cohesive unit that preserves the species as a whole. Collectively they are a profound unity of behavioral relationships that preserves the status quo in ways it does not understand.

The leafcutter ant cannot say how it learned to cultivate a fungus on a bed of leaves to feed the young ants that help continue the colony. It cannot say how it farms a specific bacterium that secretes chemicals that serve to protect the fungus from pests and molds. It cannot say how it learned to cooperatively build and ventilate a massive intricate lair that is optimized for the colony’s survival – or how it divides tasks among its citizens by producing specific amounts of specialized ants that support a sustainable equilibrium. The next generation of queens cannot say how they learned to save a portion of the fungus, or how they learned to fly in search of a mate to start a new colony when the time comes. They cannot say how they know to build a new nest to bring another colony from one individual to a community of millions cooperating as a whole to continue the cycle over time.

The wild dog cannot say how it how it learned to feed its various hungers for air food and reproduction, or how those particular hungers were established. It cannot say how it learned to sense its order inside the pack or with other creatures in the natural world. The vast conspiracy of signals that shaped its state of being flowed out unnoticed from the darkened depths of nature and nurture. Many biological creatures cannot describe the strategies through which their complex behavior patterns are arranged and preserved, neither are they aware of the depth perception with which they view and interact with such a broad swath of nature. “Blind genius” is perhaps an accurate way to describe it.

The intricate behavioral patterns that emerge from environmental influences in the crucible of time which preserve the status quo are largely unknown to the very creatures that express them. Even humans, with our capacity for abstract thought are far more able to report on what happened than we are to craft an intentional happening from a slightly enhanced state of awareness. From an outward perspective looking in we can observe a vast collection of relationships that are aligned with the intention of carrying a species forward in time. We can also see how human culture follows this same form by conspiring to preserve ideas based on what has already been established without respect to whether they service something fulfilling or destructive. If we are influenced so heavily by accidents of circumstance, is it possible to play a better hand than the one we were dealt?

Our heredity, coupled with our upbringing, can be like the sting of the Jewell Wasp which immobilizes a cockroach into a zombie state. Unable to move of its own volition, the cockroach is led to be slowly eaten from the inside out by the wasp’s offspring. Some of us can become like the zombie cockroach, stung by circumstance, unaware that what we think and do is not a matter of choice toward fulfillment, but a complacent slave to our own destruction. Like so many other biological creatures, we can be complex expressions of blind intention that act to preserve a destructive behavioral norm and yet; we can be simultaneously unable to exercise a choice that effectively changes the outcome.

In the game of poker players are dealt a five card hand which they keep hidden until everyone takes turns putting bets on how likely they think their hand will win against their peers. The betting continues until someone matches rather than raises the previous players bet. On the surface the game would fall prey to the person with the best hand on average over time, if it were not for the bluff. Someone can behave differently with their bets than what would make sense if only the strength or weakness of the hand was the factor. Placing a bet that implies a better hand can bluff others into “folding” leaving their money on the card table to protect them from losing even more than they have before the betting pool went up. This element of bluff changes the entire dynamic of the game. It is also a metaphor we can use to point to the real location of choice in our lives.

While we are bound in many ways to circumstance by virtue of the hand we are dealt, we also have some wiggle room if we learn to act with intention. The profoundly dark genius on which our behavioral strategies are executed to preserve and propagate more of themselves are largely hidden from many of us. As a result, some of us flow on the currents of circumstance without much in the way of capacity for choice. Unless we first learn to recognize the behavioral momentum on which we ride we cannot become self-aware, and unless we behave contrary to any destructive elements in the midst of that momentum we cannot move toward a greater state of fulfillment. We must become more aware, and use that as a springboard to make intentional choices.

Some of us think we make choices and navigate life when in fact we are only blindly echoing the characteristic smells, tastes, and urges of our particular brand of biological stew. We experience a brew of motivating factors in the form of such things as hormones and neurotransmitters and the like. Along with our physiological structure, these biological factors drive our behaviors and set the tone for the relationships we develop – and collectively, what we experience as life. We can be equipped to execute with precision skill, maneuvers that cultivate a depleted and impoverished state of being. We can also effectively act as agents that infect and carry a disastrous collection of behavioral practices outward to multiply across more biological territory. In other words; we can easily pass our poison on to our family and community the same way we pass our genes on to our children. The same way rabies takes over a mammalian host and destroys it as the means by which it preserves and replicates more of itself, we can blindly carry out and propagate our own destructive state of being by virtue of the biological circumstantial hand we are dealt.

It is critical to understand how the biological motivation machine we are equipped to navigate with works if we are to move with intention in any other direction than the one we came equipped with. If we are diminished by the behavioral momentum of destructive circumstance we can sink below the surface of our own capacity for self-awareness and blindly participate in the dark genius of relational cultivation that leads to our own dissatisfaction.

Many of us mistakenly think that we make choices when we don’t. When we recognize a biological signal like thirst and respond by getting a drink. We might think; “I’m thirsty, I will get a glass of water”. This is not a choice. What we have done in this case is reported what our biology has spoken to us after dutifully following what it has instructed us to do. Mistaking our words as the driver of our behaviors when they are actually a byproduct of what our biology compels us to do hides the true nature of choice. Just because we wrap some words around an experience doesn’t mean we made anything near a choice.

If the relational climate we grew up in was peppered with cycles of betrayal and stress, we will continue to preserve and cultivate this selfsame experience throughout life because our biology will be tuned to move us in that direction. Our state of awareness can become a whiney reporter and explainer of the painful events that are driven by our own biological queues. We can blindly cultivate powerful destructive influences that shape complex social environments without recognizing our participation in the painful consequences that follow. We can do this with the same blind and amazing depth perception with which an ant colony interacts with the social environment based on its biological queues.

Our biology tells us what we are thirsty for and how to act to satisfy that thirst, but our thirsts can be hijacked to be aligned around a diminished experience of life. Depending on what we experienced in our developmental environment, our biology could be thirsty for unfulfilling destructive relationships. We too can become the cockroach that received the signals that lead it to willingly participate in being devoured to feed the next generation of parasitic wasps. We reflect the natural and “nurtural” aspects of the environment we grew up in unless we learn to cultivate choice, and choice is not as easy as it might look on the surface.

Understanding the mechanics of real choice is much like understanding the game of poker. We have to first understand what our biology is inclined to do. We must also recognize that our biological momentum cannot be altered without some disciplined effort to deviate from the message it sends. In other words; to choose something other than what we are already inclined to do, we must do what we don’t feel like! If we are inclined to cultivate a destructive climate, it means we need to act contrary to our feeling as the sole driver of our behaviors.

If we make an honest assessment of what we are inclined to do based on the expressed behaviors of our current and prior generations we can see our culture in general has all three of the behavioral dynamics of nature; parasitic, predatory and symbiotic mutually nourishing ones. Of a certainty mankind currently has parasitic and predatory elements clearly expressed through our macro behavioral climate. Some governments war over resources or turn a blind eye to injustice rather than find the best equilibrium of sharing that maximizes shared wealth, some businesses drain multitudes for the aggrandizement of a few. The parasitic and predatory cultural memes we express are often perpetuated through a process of hijacking the emotional mechanics of the masses the same way a Jewell Wasp hijacks the biology of a roach to turn it into a willing zombie or rabies spreads in a mammalian population so that it participates in its own destruction to preserve the destructive element.

To believe the macro behavior of our collective culture is not built on the collective tide of micro cultural environments is delusional. In this same respect, to think that any of us are immune to the effects of the dark genius of biological inclinations is also delusional. The solution must be grassroots because the problem is also grassroots in nature. Individually we have to begin to grasp what drives us and make effective disciplined choices to steer our behaviors in directions that are more built on a mutually nourishing symbiotic center, otherwise we will continue to experience the backhanded poverty of parasitic and predatory behaviors. We also need to join together in mass to collectively address the larger manifestations of destructive behaviors on larger social scales. To behave contrary to what we feel is necessary if those feelings incline us to move in destructive directions. If we are not centered on cultivating a network of nourishing symbiotic relationships we will continue to be agents of the preservation of our own diminished experience of life. This is the only way we can establish real choices that lead to fulfillment in the midst of a cultural climate that is partly poisoned with poverty generating elements.

The discipline to do this is not a passive activity. We cannot expect to somehow be rescued from the devices of our own biological momentum without effort. Our persistence must be greater than the resistance until we have firmly established a more nourishing center of biological momentum. Based on an honest assessment of where we currently are, we need to step beyond ourselves in the same way that the well placed bluff of a poker player is the only way to steer the game toward a more positive outcome. This is also the only way to play our best hand as a species and a planet sized body of life.

[1] 2013

The Value of Understanding the Whole Context

Dan Ariely speaking at TED

Dan Ariely speaking at TED

The meaning expressed through a musical composition cannot be fully understood by ever more detailed examinations of the nature and character of individual notes or segments of time within the whole composition. While a greater understanding complex systems can be extracted by this method, ever greater focus also has limitations and understanding can actually reach a point of negative return. Detailed examination of systems crosses a boundary where the greater detail with which the system is examined, the less the system as a whole is understood. A fact that often goes unnoticed among us; the more detailed our focus, greater role assumption plays in filling in the gaps of understanding the whole context of which that focused part resides.

If we use a translator such as, the English sentence “Meaning can quite easily get lost in translation.” becomes “Significado bastante fácil perderse en la traducción” in Spanish. If the Spanish is then translated to Arabic it becomes يعني من السهل جدا أن تضيع في الترجمة, and if this is translated back to English it becomes “Means very easy to get lost in translation.” An important point is that the loss of meaning, which is not too severe in this case, happens whenever things are translated. If we were to hear someone without a full command of English speaking the sentence “Means very easy to get lost in translation.” we might not be able to fill in the correct gaps to accurately get back to the original meaning.

Although we tend to believe what we see, if we begin to honestly examine all the places where we fill in the gaps to form our perceptions, we can begin get a better grasp on how much humility is appropriate on the certainty with which we carry our beliefs. One example of how this works is in vision. In crude terms, our eyes are stimulated by various frequencies of light. This stimulation is translated by special cells and specialized proteins into signals that are carried through the optic nerve and pathways to the occipital lobe portion of our brain. This portion of our brain translates the signal into what we perceive as vision, but this process also involves many translation steps where missing pieces are filled in along the way. For instance; our peripheral vision is color blind, there are specific blind spots in our eyes, and our brain essentially bridges one scene to the next when we move our eyes by filling in the blurry gaps. We experience a continuous color image, but that is because of a “filling in the gaps” translation effect, not because of accuracy.

If we were to place the inherent inadequacies of the means by which our method of perceiving the world exists, we can also see why some people hold ideas that appear irrational to others. We can see how tribal “in group”, “out group” divisions emerge in social environments. In fact, we can also see how culture and division emerges throughout the world, each division thinking it sees things clearly and all other views are false. We can also see how it is possible to be removed from the context of the whole in such ways that our individual positions could easily be irrational at the same time they look completely normal and correct to us.

To illustrate this more clearly, let’s ask the question; “Why are so many of us more concerned about such things as a new TV, taxes, or the stress of traffic in the context of a world where 16,000 children die of starvation every day?” The answer is not as simple as “we don’t care”. A starving child crawling on a sidewalk next to a vehicle stuck in traffic would probably prompt most of us to get out immediately and do something about it. Why? Because there is much less lost in the translation due to its proximity. To understand this effect better we can look at the work of the Behavioral economist Dan Ariely. He studies the bugs in our moral code that arise due to the way we translate information. He applies it to better understand the often hidden ways we think it’s OK to cheat or steal, but it also applies to all aspects of our perception, culture and our experience of life. He calls the concept “predictable irrationality”.

Think of a person; lose sight of people, think of people; lose sight of a person.

Intentional Life is Serious Business: Of Wasps and Stings

Ampulex compressa

Ampulex compressa

The Jewel Wasp is a solitary creature for most of its life. Named for its shimmering metallic blue-green sheen, it looks like a flying jewel.[1] Along with its looks, another notable characteristic is its use of cockroaches as part of its reproductive cycle. When the fertile female’s eggs are ready to be laid she hunts the grounds of her native territory in South Asia, Africa and certain Pacific islands for a cockroach. Once found, the wasp goes into action. She first gives the roach a measured and precision sting in a very specific area of its nervous system.[2] This venomous injection causes a 2 to 3 minute paralysis of the roach’s legs.

While the roach is temporarily immobile, the wasp administers an even more refined series of precision stings that do a number of other things to the now doomed roach. This second series of stings prevent the roach from walking spontaneously, it disables the roach’s escape instincts and changes its metabolism. The roach can still do things such as stand up, jump and walk if prodded, but otherwise it just stands there… waiting. The connections between the cockroach brain and motor signals have been surgically severed by the wasp venom. Both its behavior and metabolism have been edited by the wasp’s surgical strikes. The roach begins grooming itself excessively. The wasp grabs its waggling antennae and chews off half of each of them.[3] The roach stands there, a helpless pawn in the clutches of wasp’s desire. This stinging, antennae munching encounter completes the preparation for the next phase of the roach’s waspy relationship adventure.

As the behaviorally modified metabolically altered zombie-roach-slave stands there awaiting the wasps’ bidding, she goes off to dig a burrow in the soil. The wasp then leads the roach into the burrow using one of the chewed antennas as a leash. It proceeds to lay an egg on the roach’s abdomen and seals in the burrow entrance to keep other predators out. The roach stands in a state of suspended stupor as the wasp egg hatches into a larva and begins to feed on it, eventually chewing a hole large enough to crawl inside. From inside the roach motel, the wasp larva strategically eats its organs at the same time it secretes several kinds of antibiotics to inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungi and viruses.[4] The wasp protects the roach with one hand as it saps the nourishment it needs to develop into a fully formed wasp pupa with the other. Once fully formed it bursts out of the now dead roach’s exoskeleton, then emerges from the combination roach execution chamber and wasp nursery to look for food, a mate and, if it’s female, to someday hunt roaches on which to lay its eggs…

We might consider this simultaneously horrific and fascinating story of the life cycle of a Jewel Wasp one of nature’s astounding expressions of biological relationships in the parasitic and predatory realms. If we look slightly deeper, we see a no less amazing subplot of a nurturing symbiotic relationship intertwined with this beastly horror as the wasp, from its perspective, is simply caring for its young the only way it knows how. We can stretch ourselves to wonder how this complex relational dynamic that includes such an amazing understanding of the anatomy of another creature, how to use specifically tuned hunting skills, and the use of biological equipment and chemicals to hijack and masterfully edit the behaviors of this creature to serve its own ends. How did this perplexing mixture of tender care and cruelty emerge from what appears to us as the chaotic depths of the cosmos? We could also wonder with even deeper amazement at our own fortunes – to have the capacity to gaze with some vague understanding of this marvelous spectacle, and perhaps with some effort, turn this same lens upon ourselves – to see a kindred spirit in that of both the wasp and the cockroach.

The wasp figured out how to do delicate and specific brain surgery, developed the skillsets to hunt, crafted specialized venom, excavated burrows into which it could walk zombie cockroaches, and had the presence of mind to anticipate other predators and take preventative actions to make sure its waspy aims were not thwarted. The wasp did this on the heels of behavioral momentum of millions, perhaps billions of years of biological evolution.[5] It didn’t go to school to learn these complex behaviors. It too is a zombie of sorts. It just does what it does as part of the wasp family business. Its life is not a morality play. It is unfettered by any sense of good or evil (that we know of) in its behavioral posture. According to our current understanding of evolution, the wasp’s life and that of the cockroach is not intentional. It is simply an expression of a confluence of various types of experiences that flow from the relationships within this broader environmental womb of the whole of nature.

If we view all biological relationships through the simplistic categories of the parasite that drains, the predator that devours, and the symbiotic relationship that mutually nourishes, we might see the same three relational dynamics in the wasp and the roach coursing within our own behavioral veins. If we wrapped this idea up in a poetic veneer it might look like this:

We’re the lion that stalks and feeds upon the weakened prey
and we’re the lamb who falls and bleeds at its hands this day

Like fatty chunks of poison, the same parasitic-predatory dynamic clogs the veins of humanity’s capacity to move toward its most satisfied state of being. We are sometimes captivated by poisons that stupefy, oppress, wound and devour us. We are sometimes caught in the crosshairs of biological conspiracies that subjugate us to serve the ends of other creatures both inside and outside the human sphere. And like the tender nurture of wasp tending to its offspring, we also do whatever it takes to spawn our biological posterity – no matter what the expense or suffering is to any ill-fated creature that might be repurposed to serve our ends along this journey.

With our capacity to use the currency of abstract thought, we can examine the nature of the social landscape of reality. With this, we also have the capacity to see the relational connections between cause and effect with greater precision. Unlike the wasp, we can understand how our relationship behaviors connect to our experience of life. To hone in on this dynamic and its potential power, we can look at the fact that we wouldn’t know about the wasp if it were not for the symbiotic sharing of ideas between us that include everything from language and culture to communication technologies of various kinds. We also wouldn’t know that every relational experience we paint on our lives either nourishes or destroys based on whether it is symbiotically giving, or parasitically and predatorily taking in nature.

Everything we are in terms of “better off” experience-wise stems from some form of cooperative nourishing endeavor. Conversely, every form of poverty we endure stems from some form of parasitic or predatory relational element. With this vision we can decide which of the relational paints we apply to our lives, and in what measure. Through the precision application of this vision, we can intentionally craft an intentional experiential picture on the canvas of possibilities reality presents. Unlike the wasp, we can do more than merely reflect the blind currents of collected behaviors over time. We can exercise intention to cultivate a direction of our choosing. We can inspire each other with ideas and behavioral expressions that cultivate a more nourishing symbiotic relationship climate, and less of the experiential poverty that grows in the soil of parasitic and predatory behaviors.

To do this effectively, the first step is to have a clear vision of the cause and effect chain that shapes our experience. We must also know that whatever action we choose in light of this understanding must be carried out with enough strength, passion and perseverance to overcome the momentum of the behavioral seeds that were sown in our being for a very long time. Life, if it is to be intentionally lived, must be governed by fully functioning antennae and the capacity to move of our own volition, and disciplined actions that correspond with that vision. This precision sting, in the form of sharing these ideas, is intended to contribute to the visionary foundation we need to enable that intentional move.



[1] Also called the emerald cockroach wasp, or Ampulex compressa.

[2] The first sting is delivered to the prothoracic ganglion which temporarily blocks the motor action potentials that control the motor function of the front legs.For more Click Here

[3] It is thought that this may be to either replenish fluid in the wasp or to regulate the poison in the roach in order to prepare it to be a host.

[4] Specifically the antibiotic chemicals are mellein and micromolide.

[5] Depending on whether the wasp’s evolutionary predecessors and environmental partners are included in the view.