Thursday, January 06, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 3


A snowy Kilmore Road, Artane, December 25th,  2010
It is rather hard for us humans to reflect on the nature of our own consciousness, or even on the nature of our own humanity as we are part of that very cycle of life which we are striving to understand in evermore detail.  However, through the powers of our imagination and intelligence, we have achieved much in this regard by expanding our knowlege of all of nature that surrounds us as well as much insight into and indeed some knowledge of what our consciousness is.  I am always struck by the proven fact of modern physics that the observer himself or herself influences the results.  Bearing all this in mind, let us proceed with our consideration of Profesor Paul Giulbert's book The Compassionate Mind (Constable, London, 2010).

In Chapter 2, Gilbert teases out the implications of our having evolved within what he terms the "flow of life." (passim).  We're a complex species which has evolved, he argues, on the one hand to search for an almost elusive, and sometimes ill-defined (my words here) individuality and yet on the other for a connectedness, a conformity and a belonging.  Our sense of awareness can be both a blessing and a curse - thereby we reach the heights og creativity and yet see that our very feet are made of sand - nothing lasts.  And so, our author names his second chapter "The Challenges of Life."  Now, which one of us could not write book-length volumes on this broad and universal topic?

In an effort to help us re-connect with the "flow of life" from which we have become disconnected, Gilbert outlines three basic interacting emotion regulating systems within ther human make-up.  This is the first time I've heard them called by the names our author gives them, but I believe it is essentially useful and important for us to know what they are and what they mean:

1 The Threat and Self-Protection System

This more or less does what it says on the tin.  The function of this system is to pick up on threats quickly, and consequently it gives us bursts of feelings such as anxiety, anger and disgust.  I encounter all of these in my work as a Learning Support Teacher where I am running an anger management group as well as an anxiety management group.  When I was at a college we called this the "fight or flight" response in our stone age bodies.  Without doubt this particular emothion regulating system evolved as a protection system.  Let us listen to the words of Professor Gilbert here:

In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the brain gives more priority to dealing with threats than to pleasurable things.  The threat system operates with particular brain networks, one ofr which is the amygdala (from the Latin for almond).  You have one of these groups of neurons on each side of your brain behind each ear.  The amygdala is a fast-acting processor that picks up of things of importance to us, especially threatening things. (Op. cit., p. 25)
2 The Incentive and Resource-seeking System:

Christmas pudding, 25th Dec., 2010
This emotion regulating system gives us all of our positive feelings.  These feelings guide, motivate and encourage us to seek out resources that we will need to survive and prosper.  We are all motivated by and find pleasure in seeking out nice things like food (especially rich and tasty food), sex (I need not say much about this), comforts of all types, clothing, fashion, friendships, status, promotion, recognition in various areas of life and so on.  Our ambitions come in here, and not a little ego I should think.

3. The Soothing and Contentment System:

This, our professor says, is very difficult to describe, but basically it would seem to be our ability to relax and let go, to chill out and be content, and to be uncaught up in the other two systems.  Now this is very hard to do indeed, given that the other two systems are so hard-wired into us.  There are no feelings of hyped-up joy or elation here.  No, it is the very opposite to that.  It is akin to the feelings we get when we practise meditation.  It's an instinctive - though very hard to access given its interplay with the other two systems - ability to live in the now.   What further complicates this system is that it is linked to affection and kindness - all the mammalian brain stuff.  Affection and care and love from others continue to soothe us throughout our lives.

To add a biological twist to things, we note that there are chemical substances in our brains called endorphins which help create this peaceful, calm and balanced sense of personal well-being.  The hormone oxytocin is also involved in the soup though in the context of feeling safe in a social context.

Professor Gilbert goes on to remind us that this third system will play an important and central role in ennabling us to have compassion both for the self and for the other. 

To be continued

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