Monday, January 03, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 2

Pavement chalk drawing, Via del Corso, Roma Dicembre, 2010
It has often been said that we have a modern (that is now a 21st century) mind in a stone-age body. This is very true indeed. I am also particularly drawn to the scientific fact that there are three levels of the brain, viz., the Reptilian Brain (the most ancient and primitive layer where all the more primitive drives reside), the Mammalian Brain or central layer (where love and care, “mammying” and our most prized emotions rest) and finally the Cortical Brain where all the higher functions we are capable of reside. Now, it would seem that it is in the struggle between the modern mind and its ancient body and that between the three levels of our brain itself that much, if not all, human problems lie.

And so it is by enumerating and describing these various problems that Professor Gilbert begins his insightful book, The Compassionate Mind to which I alluded in my last post. Here, I will confine myself just to some observations he makes in his first chapter. What will be written here will in no sense be a summary of what he says. Rather, it will be my response to his thoughts, positive or otherwise. Or rather it will comprise thoughts sparked off in my mind by reading his. Hence, also, this will in no sense be a critical review of his book either.

In chapter one, Gilbert opines that we experience a sense of disconnection from the flow of life, which we are essentially a part of by virtue of being a human animal. This disconnection with what (rather than who) we are leads us to suffer. I have mentioned how Gilbert avoids philosophy and philosophers, probably feeling that they are far too speculative. However, I cannot resist bringing them into the discussion here. Existentialists would say that this experience of disconnection is nothing short of a deep feeling of angst (sheer anxiety) in the wake of our being alienated from our true nature, They would also speak of our desire to be free beings who live a paradoxical life is so far as our freedom is so limited by our genes and indeed the various norms and restrictions placed on us by society.

Gilbert maintains, and indeed I believe he is right, that when we understand where our desires and feelings come from (see my opening paragraph) and when we understand how they work we will be less likely to be so hard upon ourselves. In other words, in so doing and in reflecting on our very own reactions we can learn to be far more compassionate with ourselves. As a meditator I have long been aware of the efficacy of visualizations to for my own personal equanimity (or, indeed deeper healing if you like). Gilbert adverts to the power of sexual visualizations for arousal of those particular senses and argues that scientists have proved (or can prove) in like manner that visualizations of compassionate scenes also create a compassionate sense within us. I will quote the author’s words here:

In fact, focusing on kindness, both to ourselves and to other people, stimulates areas of the brain and body in ways that are very conducive to health and well-being. Researchers have also found that, from the day we are born to the day we die, the kindness, support, encouragement and the compassion of others has a huge impact on how our brains, bodies and general sense of well-being develop. Love and kindness, especially in early life, even affect how some of our genes are expressed! (Op. cit., pp. 4-5)

Gilbert goes on to argue that compassion is a way of training our brains that affects connections in them in a very important way. There seems to be nothing new to this reader in the learned professor’s contentions here. Buddhism has long seen compassion as a way of training ourselves to achieve a greater sense of well-being. However, Gilbert does add in the scientific data by way of corroboration and/or proof.

That modern humanity is out of synchronisation with its true self, or “out of the flow of life” where it should be is evident from the amount of mental suffering there is in modern society. Some commentators have referred to the fact that we are enslaved to a consumerist vision of life as the causal factor here. Others have called this factor the affluenza bug. What a felicitous and accurate phrase that is indeed.

Professor Gilbert goes on to argue that we must face squarely the fact that we are evolved beings and the most evolved ones at that, on our planet and further that we ourselves have resulted from the struggles of millions of other life forms, 99% of which are now dead. However, while our brains and minds are highly evolved, our stone-age bodies are not. This leads to what he calls “contextual overload.” (Ibid., p. 19) For example, our primitive cardiovascular system was not designed to cope with high-fat foods, low exercise and smoking. No caveman, or cave woman for that matter, was obese. Hence they did not develop mechanisms for restraint as regards eating and drinking.

Developing compassion for the self and for the other can and does help us to improve our awareness of suffering and its causes, thereby increasing our well-being.

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