To Be Human, To Be Animal

It is obvious that there are a number of fundamental differences between humans and  other animals on this planet. Humans have a language whose complexity goes far beyond ways in which animals communicate. We have writing. We use very sophisticated tools. We live in large groups made out of individuals with very different personalities.

It fills me with wonder to contemplate how it came to be that humans exist. It just feels so improbable that we came to be at all. It is so wonderful that we are made in a way which allows us to appreciate beauty and to transcend selfish desire.

However we also need to remind ourselves that we are, for the largest part, animals and beings with aspirations beyond animal desires only to a small degree.

If you ask people what is most important in their life, many will answer that it is family. The concept of family springs from nature; elephants, dolphins, wolves, they all have family just as we do.

If you we think about what drives many of us, it is desire to accumulate power; may it be in the form of money, respect from others, or control over those close to us. This quest for power is yet again of Nature; chimpanzees seek it, wolves seek it, even chicken seek it.

If we ask ourselves how many of us are truly driven by factors which originate from the part of our mind which is not equal to anything else found in Nature, I think we will find that they are few.

And this is very understandable. Most parts of our brain are shared with all mammals. What drives a goat to want to procreate? Chances are similar brain structures are involved in this than are used by Nature to guide our behaviour. And there is nothing wrong with that! We (as of yet) cannot change what we are. We cannot re-engineer our brains and take out all the lowly animal parts – and even if we could, after we would have done this, we would not be ourselves anymore.

What we must do, though, is to acknowledge what we are. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that there is a mountain of instinct within us with only a small temple of reflective self upon it.

If we do not acknowledge this, our animal self will, without our knowledge, always be the driving force of our behaviour, most likely without us even noticing. But if we do acknowledge it, we gain the opportunity to truly love ourselves, encompassing all aspects which make us who we are; and we also gain the opportunity to gently guide ourselves towards more nobler goals.

Imagine you are a young man and you and your friends are having a talk about women. You talk about the various aesthetic features of the female gender you have witnessed in women you know or don’t know. One of your friends is boasting with how many women he has slept just this year. Maybe you feel inadequate, since maybe you weren’t nearly as successful as your friend in that respect. If you have understanding of yourself, you will see that your feelings spring from your animal mind; it is a reflection of Nature’s good intention to assure that your genes are passed to the next generation; ideally in a vehicle which will provide for their best possible fitness (those features of the female gender that make you and your friends rave but which would leave any extraterrestrial creature surely unimpressed). Don’t judge yourself and don’t judge your friends; this is just the way you are made. Just don’t fool yourself that you are engaged in a noble and spiritually worthwhile quest. If you are looking for true meaning in your life, then think about starting to look somewhere else.

There are many facets to our animal nature; starting with the very obvious, such as our desire to breathe and the constant beating of our heart, and ending with the devious, where our base desires for power of procreation disguise themselves as noble goals. Unfortunately our current culture is very un-reflective of how our animal selves influence our behaviour; in fact, it is something which is often seen as something good rather than bad; especially if you are looking at commercials. Do commercials for perfume and deodorant appeal to our innate ability to appreciate the complex wonders of the world, or our base animal desire to be as attractive as possible to potential mates?  Moreover, our current culture it is taboo to even consider some aspects of how our nature influences who we are; for instance the question of whether our gender may influence our actions (with some exceptions, it’s okay to say young men are more likely to be criminals and kill themselves in stupid ways, both of which are undoubtedly statistically evident).

Thus I think now more than ever it is important to remind ourselves what we are and to acknowledge what is the strongest force in our being; to embrace ourselves as the wonder we are while also enabling ourselves to understand the limitations of ourselves; to become the best version of who we can be with what has been given to us.

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What Makes Me Happy?

I am currently reading the book ‘Happiness’ by Matthieu Ricard and a small exercise is presented at the end of the first chapter. The exercise is to think about what gives us pleasure and happiness. This question got me contemplating for quite a while. It appears I am not thinking very often about whether I am happy or not, let alone the causes of my happiness. I usually live with the assumption that my life is quite a happy one, unless there is something specific happening that upsets me.

However contemplating this question might not be the worst of ideas, since, as Ricard argues, being happy and content is a skill that can be learned like anything else and understanding what makes us happy seems like a very important step in getting better at happiness. Some of the things that I could come up with that make me happy are the following:

  • My wife: how I can bring good things into her life, and how she brings good things into mine, such as a wonderful smile when I am coming home from work.
  • Work and mastery: being engaged in a task in a field, software development, that interests and challenges me.
  • Beauty: encountering beauty in the natural world or of the mind.
  • Being helpful: bringing goodness into other’s lives.
  • Creativity: the ability to think and create.

I think what also contributes to my happiness is the absence of certain things:

  • Anger: at someone or something I think has wronged me.
  • Jealousy: thinking that someone has something I deserve more than they do.
  • Feeling of being treated unfairly: thinking that someone has taken advantage of me, not paid me back in kind.
  • Tiredness: feeling of having no energy to do something.
  • Sickness: feeling of not being able to do something because I have a sickness or afraid of catching one.

Thankfully I do not encounter these feelings all that often; but if I do, they certainly impact my level of happiness. Ricard calls these ‘mental toxins’.

A subquestion of the question posed is whether the things that bring us happiness could easily be taken from us. I think that is probably the case with what I have identified as contributing to my happiness. However I am not so sure if that should worry me.

I think some things, they make us happy, but they can also be taken away from us; but the happiness they bring outweigh the dangers of loosing them. I think it is thus still wise to embrace them – and ready ourselves for the possibility of loss.

Ultimately, of course, it is most important to find a deep, lasting and unassailable happiness. This I think can be achieved by finding a deeper purpose that provides us with a foundation for happiness. I think that I am still in the process of identifying this purpose for myself; sometimes I feel like that I have found it; and sometimes it seems to slip away from me.

I think it is very easy to live our modern day lives and loose sight of the question of the deeper meaning of existence. We are so busy with other things; so occupied with readily available distractions; and I am susceptible to this admittedly.

I feel like that my deeper purpose is to bring good into this world; to give back some of the blessing of the miracle of my existence. However, I am still unsure how I should go about this and also about what exactly good entails.

Thus I think I still have a long way to go on a road to deep and unassailable happiness. The question that Ricard poses is I think a very good one. I believe thinking about it has been valuable for me and I will try to make sure that I will keep it in my mind and in the process hopefully get better at happiness.

Picture credit: kikatani

Consciousness: What is all the Fuss About?

Today I listened to a podcast from the show Waking up with Sam Harris. The topic of the podcast was consciousness and the self the guest was a Anil K. Seth. I haven’t finished the podcast yet (it is over three hours long) but even in the beginning I couldn’t stop wondering why it would be necessary to make such a big deal about the concept of consciousness.

Sam Harris said that consciousness was the most important thing in the universe since everything we perceive we perceive through the lens of consciousness. I think that is an odd way of thinking about it. Sure, for us individually, that is true; but objectively it is most likely well of the mark. The universe is such a gigantic place, filled with wonders we know of, and even more of whom we don’t. That we have any importance at all, apart from being a small piece in something large and beautiful, seems very unlikely to me. In effect, our consciousness also does’t matter much, since we don’t matter much.

I do agree that there is a need for us to find a source of spiritual wealth; to have something we believe in which is above and beyond cold, hard natural laws. However, I think it is misguided to search for this in our consciousness; to see something magical in it with significant spiritual value. I think there is a very easy explanation for the existence of consciousness; that it is something which enabled the long line of our ancestors to find better solutions to the problems the environment presented them. In all likelihood, it exists in all our relatives in the animal kingdom in a modified form; just as our brains, legs and heart.

Philosophers often make a big deal about that we would never be able to ‘know’ what it was to be like a pig, for instance. But I think we do know. Since our brain in many ways is very similar to a pig’s brain it is very likely we have the same feelings and insights. We know when a pig is afraid, we know when a pig is joyous; and we know so only because the pig is a mirror of ourselves in so many ways.

Consciousness is simply a model of the world; an abstraction. Like any abstraction it is more than the physical world but it is grounded in it. It is a wonder beyond comprehension that nature could result in such a mechanism and that our brains are capable of supporting this model. It is however undoubtedly very insufficient for the tasks we set it towards in our modern world (like trying to define consciousness); it was simply not designed for this.

We can marvel at the existence of our consciousness but we must also acknowledge that there is nothing special about it; even that it is lacking in many ways. Thus exploring our consciousness is not a path which leads to truth. Our collective insights, enabled and advanced by technology and robust methodologies, are far more valuable and a better guide for us to build a better self and a better life.

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Anger

We all know how it feels to be angry. We can be angry in the small, maybe about something we forgot and for which only we ourselves are to blame. We can be angry in the big, as a people who feel that others are taking advantage of us.

It is unfortunately true that to be human, means to be angry. Anger seems to be one of the emotions which emerge with higher intelligence. It is hard to imagine a mouse or lizard being angry; but a pig, parrot, dolphin or ape, they all make the appearance as if they know very well how to be angry.

It often feels as if anger brings about only bad for us and others. Many religions prescribe that we should control and overcome anger, especially Buddhism and Christianity. Other emotions such as compassion or forgiveness, in contrast, are portrayed as something we should seek and nourish within ourselves.

And it is true that anger is a dangerous emotion. Anger can lead to violence and violence rarely brings about good. However, to say that anger only brings about bad goes too far. Anger is the key emotion which drives us to fight injustice, and there is always injustice.

Anger should not be suppressed; instead anger should be seen as an energy source. If we feel anger, we can acknowledge it, we can try to understand its root and use its emotional power to propel us towards more sophisticated emotions and bring about positive change.

I tend to get angry when I feel that I am taken advantage of. I also tend to get angry when I feel that my life is constrained in a way which is not good for me. Thinking about it, this anger is more often than not unjustified. But realising that my anger was misguided often brightens and empowers feelings of love and gratitude.

I am also angry about the state of the world. That we have so much, yet use it so poorly. We don’t use our economic and technological power to make our planet better; we use it to make it worse. We don’t use it to make people happier; we use it to make them more miserable and stressed. Will being angry about this change anything? Most certainly not. But this anger is fuel for my thoughts and actions; some of which will maybe make a very small difference to bring about positive change.

Anger is like a raw ingredient out of which we can fashion our emotional world. By itself it is bitter and spoils our lives; but used with proper care it can enrich our lives and others.

Image credit: Liberty Leading the People

Mind, Body and Soul

When we think of the mind, we often first think about our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and decisions. When our mind wanders, our thoughts jump from one topic to another. When we change our mind, we have decided to think of something in a different way than we used to or decided to do things in a different way.

The mind is usually seen as being not of the body and to be a different concept than the soul. Our body is the physical machine which keeps us alive; our organs, bones, blood vessels. This body, specifically our brain, enables our mind. Our mind, in turn, enables our soul; the soul which I define as the part of us which is of spiritual value, whereby spiritual denotes the dimension in which higher level thinking and our most pure and wholesome emotions fuse.

Rather than seeing mind, body and soul as separate things, we should see them as interwoven. Without our body, there can be no mind; without our mind, there can be no soul. (I am not aware of any evidence that we possess something like a soul disconnected from our body and it altogether seems to make little sense; so much of what we are, what we feel, what we think is deeply rooted within our brain, and measurably so; so how should a version of us exist without our brain?)

Notwithstanding this hierarchy, from body to mind to soul, we shouldn’t think of the body as being inferior to the mind, and the mind being inferior to the soul. Each is a wonder on its own, and in combination they are a wonder beyond comprehension.

It should be no secret to any of us that our mind is a big mess. Our thoughts, emotions, decisions and believes are not static, clearly structured or well organised. They are fluid and difficult to formalise. Thus we often ‘cannot make up our mind’. To complicate matters, we are designed to feel the illusion of control over our mind. We feel like we are making conscious decisions using thoughtful considerations; when in reality most of our decisions are made in the ‘subconscious’, a mysterious space which bridges our body and mind.

The subconscious may encompass the vast majority of our brain activity. It controls our body to keep us alive; by keeping the heart beating, filling our lungs with air, and by controlling a million different other things happening in our body. It also has been theorised that it is in the subconscious where our greatest capacity for creativity and many other higher functions of our brain lies.

As with many things in the biological and even more so in the psychological world there are no clear boundaries between the body, subconscious and mind. Take breathing for example: usually the subconscious and body take care of this routine activity. But we have the capability to take over with our conscious mind and control our rate and depth of breathing (to a degree). Many things we learn and master, like driving a bicycle or the grammar of a foreign language, will first occupy our conscious mind while slowly drifting into our subconscious as we gain mastery of the task.

“I think, therefore I am.” is an untrue statement. You are far more than the sum of our thoughts. However, you may say: “I think, therefore my mind is.” This, I think, is the closest we can come to a definition of our mind; it is our conscious thinking and those aspects of our memories and feelings which we can grasp with our conscious thinking. The mind is enabled by the body and the bridge between body and soul, the subconscious. Our mind is free of value; it just is the way it is made. Our soul is the potential or the realisation of our potential to become more than our body and mind would naturally become; to adopt good and wholesome values and follow through on them with our thoughts, words and actions.

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Velvety Chains: Social Values That Bind

Today I came across an article by Steve Biddulph and one paragraph therein really struck a chord with me:

There is something happening, in the new century, to the way we live, which again is harming our basic humanity. Every economy tends to enslave, and ours is the most effective of all, since the chains are invisible, velvety soft against our wrists and necks. We are induced to work, long hours, all of us, without respite for parenthood, or for anything like a natural rhythm in our days, and rewarded with shiny toys and the ability to cross the globe at will for shallow, glitzy experiences of pseudo-wealth. Then back onto the treadmill. We trade away our lives, and we don’t even question if this has to be so.

I have mentioned before that social systems tend to ‘brainwash’ us. In effect, they make us adopt values which are not intrinsically our own and often not in our best interests. Some social rules are enforced through violence or strong obvious incentives; think of capital punishments or tax breaks for home ownership. However, such rules are not as dangerous to our well-being as tacit, implicit rules which we adopt without being fully aware. Biddulph pointedly describes these as invisible, velvety chains.

Using the word ‘chains’ implies that this is something intrinsically bad, and to some degree it is, but not all the social rules we are adopting in this way (without us being fully aware that we adopt them) are bad for our individual and collective well-being. For instance, if we get into a heated argument with someone else, we more often than not refrain from punching our adversary in the face. Often, this option doesn’t even occur to us; although it is arguably one of our natural ways to resolve conflict. We don’t do so because we have a strong set of social rules (not just laws) which guide us to avoid violence.

However, it is in any case better for us to be aware of the rules which we adopt, be they beneficial for us or not. The particular velvety chains Biddulph focuses on though are at the heart of what is wrong with our world today. Our desire for wealth, material consumption and economic growth brings untold misery into the everyday lives of billions of people. It makes those miserable which are poor, but it also makes those miserable which are rich. Biddulph mentions for instance “the astonishing decline of mental health as even the most affluent and secure kids melt down over homework stress and exam results or perfection of looks or achievement.” Our reward for our struggles is “pseudo-wealth”. Why pseudo-wealth? Well, if we can buy an expensive car, it gives the appearance of us being wealthy. But real wealth lies within our body, mind and soul; and to increase this real wealth requires deep contemplation, fostering human connection and community; none of which are aided by a car purchase. This purchase instead only makes us move the treadmill of the self-reinforcing cycle of work hard, spend, work harder, spend more.

We need to become aware of the forces that drive our lives and which bring misery to us and others. Biddulph suggests that “it might be time to quietly, carefully, walk away”. I disagree. We don’t have to walk away quietly. We should shackle our chains with a roar. A roar of anger over what was done to us, and a roar of newfound freedom; a roar which hopefully those around us will hear and join our emancipation.

However we must also do so while preserving some of the best parts of the economic system which drives our world today. In order to house, feed and care for the huge population currently living requires intricate interaction between many different industries and countries. If this system is broken in the wrong way, misery on a global scale will likely follow.

Breathing

Without a doubt, our body and mind are connected. Without our body, our mind cannot be. If we strive for a strong and enlightened mind, we must also strive for a strong and healthy body. Of course, it is still possible to achieve an enlightened mind even in a body stricken by sickness but it is just so much easier to achieve this if our body is strong.

One of the most effective ways to use our body to strengthen our mind is by controlling our breath. Thankfully our depth and speed of breathing is something we can control easily. We can make ourselves breathe slow and deep. This in turn has a positive effect on our body and on our mind. Our heart rate reduces and our mind becomes calmer. In that state, it is easier for us to be strong and pursue positive thoughts.

The health of our body and mind are linked closely. If our mind becomes healthier, so does our body and vice averse. It is a great gift given to us that we can start a process of positive reinforcement by such a simple and easy to do thing such as just taking a few deep breaths!

If you are looking for further directions on how to breath in a stress reducing way, the article Breath, Exhale, Repeat from Lesley Alderman provides a few good exercises:

Coherent Breathing

Coherent breathing simply requires to go into a comfortable position where your belly can easily expand (such as lying on your back or sitting upright). Place your hands on your belly. Then breathe in while counting slowly to four or six, then exhale to the same slow count to four or six. You should aim to complete around five breath per minute which might require some practice. The article recommends to do this for 10 to 20 minutes a day but I think much less time spent on this, even a minute or two, can already yield noticeable results.

Breathing for Stress Reduction

This exercise is designed to combat acute stress. Sit upright and place our hand on your belly. As you inhale straighten to sit upright. As you exhale, lower your head towards the floor and curl around your belly. Upon inhaling, straighten up again.

Energising Breathing

This exercise is designed to achieve the opposite effect of the previous two exercises; rather than calming us down, it is supposed to make us more awake and energised. You can achieve this by standing with a straight back and keeping your arms bend at a 90 degree angle with your upper arms next to your torso and your palms facing up. As you breath in, you pull your elbows backwards. Breath out quickly while saying ‘Ha!’ and as you breath out, thrust your arms forward and turn your palms downward.

Further Reading

The Healing Power of Breath by Dr. Richard Brown

Breathe by Belisa Vranich

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