Friday, January 07, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 4

Challenges facing us today:

(1) The Old Brains and Old Minds:

My garden hedges in the recent snow
Our first challenge, Gilbert argues, is to recognize and cope with desires, motives and dispositions that "have been written for us" (The Compassionate Mind, p. 31) through our genes long ago and which operate within many of our animal cousins also.  Let us remember, too, that our social lives - our ways of relaing socially - are part of the evolutionary process also.   In other words we have to reclaim, accept, and in turn handle appropriately our genetic and social inheritance.  Gilbert calls this our learning to realize that we are part of the "flow of life." (Ibid., passim)

(2) New Brains and New Minds:

Our second challenge, as delineated by Professor Gilbert, is to handle the fact that we are very much different from our animal brothers and sisters.  Our learned author, in line with the sound theory of evolution, puts this down to radical changes in the development of the human brain a few million years ago.  This was most likely not so much one change but a series of interconnected adaptations.  This has meant that humans evolved into the primate who remains dependent the longest with a brain maturation process that far exceeds that of all other species.  Here, Gilbert gives us an interesting and important statistic, that is, that while the brain of our nearest living relative, the chimpanzee, is a mere 350 - 450 cubic centimeters in volume, ours is around 1,500cc.  So in just 2 million years, the expansion of our cortex mainly has been rapid and dramatic.  He thens goes on to tell us that the ratio of cortex to total brain size is around 67% in apes and 80% in us humans.  As any parent will tell you the size of the human brain triples in size during the first four years of life.  Now the miracle of the human brain, especially of our cortex, is that it is the repository of such marvellous feats of imagination and creativity, knowledge and wisdom.

Now, Professor Gilbert points out that there is a complex relationship between these above two - The Old Brain and The New Brain.  Oftentimes the former hijacks the latter, and all too often at that as we have seen in the litany of wars and crises we have had during our history on this small planet - and, indeed, sadly continue to have.  Therefore, some way is needed to control and bring the former into some kind of order.  Our societies have helped through the development or law and order, our research into medicine - physical and mental - as indeed have various self-help and spiritual movements.  Here is where compassion for self and others comes in.  Compassion, like meditation, when used can be extremely helpful in keeping The Old Brain in check.

Kilmore Road, Artane, Christmas Day, 2010
Then Gilbert proceeds and outlines what has for some time been a pre-occupation, if not new hobby-horse, for me, namely our chamelion-like self, which the professor calls "The Curse of the Self." What the "self" is per se is as thorny a question as what the "mind" is.  Having spent some 7 weeks in a psychiatric hospital when I was forty years old - thankfully there have been some 12 or more healthy years since - I was hit by a spiritual juggernaut where I began to question my self-identity.  At the time I remember distinctively saying in my mind - "I am no more than a unhappy collocation and co-incidence of biochemicals."  These days I am a very happy collocation and co-incidence of the same.  Here is what Gilbert says about the chamelion self:


It turns out that, because our brains are complex and integrate systems and abilities in many different ways, we need some kind of organizing process; otherwise we'll be presented with too many possibilities, values and conflicts in what we do or think.  We have to have some way of giving priority to different potentials within us.  This is where a sense of self and self-identity come in...  You can look all you like into my brain... and all you'll find are brain cells signalling to each other, extraordinary patterns of millions of cells firing in a mosaic.  However, there is no "me" lurking about in the maze.  My experience of "me" is the pattern and is nowhere else.  If the patterns change - for example, because of brain damage - then the "essence" of me changes and I might become a very different person to how I am now. (Ibid., 41- 43)
It is no surprise to me, giving my personal experiences, my reflection on them and my subsequent reading, that the "self" is a sort of elusive work in progress, in a way a mythical creation of each human animal as they go through life.  And moreover, I am heartily in agreement with Professor Gilbert that compassion for self and others can be harnessed best through meditation and through all forms of spiritual practices.

The big thing to take from all of the above, I believe, is that along with the curse of the self there is, in fact, a cure of the self.  Now, we ourselves are the locus of that cure of self or of that help for or healing of self.  We ourselves can and do shape, construct, blend, amplify or suppress all our feelings and thoughts and so forth thanks to our New Brain and New Mind.

Indeed, we are a species designed to thrive on kindness and compassion.  We are also designed to live in community where interconnectedness and interdependency are firm qualities within the species.  We even have a tolerance for differnece built into us, Gilbert argues.   Now in most of the above, the professor is not saying anything very new at all.  In fact his book reads like a scientific underpinning of the Buddhist practices of Meditation and Compassion. 

At times Gilbert writes like an existentialist writer deeply involved in human life and open to meditating on the vagaries of the human condition.  At times he even sounds like a pessimist of the Schopenhauerian school of philosophy.  I really liked the following, which you will certainly not find in your average self-help or spiritual book:

So we're a tragic species because we are dying from the day we're born, because we are susceptible to so many genetic and infectious diseases, because we have two types of brain that together can drive us crazy and to commit great cruelties and allow terrible injustices, because we want, yearn and grieve to connect.  But the open acknowledgement of this is not the road to despair, but the call to compassion.  If life is like this, how can we train our brains to bring some meaning and genuine joy into our lives? (Ibid., p. 76)
There, then, is absolutely nothing new when this chapter ends with the author's contention that developing a compassionate mind is a way of trying to create "certain patterns in our brains that organize our motives and thoughts in ways that are conducive for our own and other people's well-being."  (Ibid., p. 87)  Siddhartha Gautama said all this, and indeed said it better, nearly 2,500 years ago.

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