Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 8


Suspended bicycle, Tropea, Gennaio 2011
Let me attempt a little summary of what I have been saying over the past 10 posts or so.  In response to having read the first five chapters of Professor Paul Gilbert's The Compassionate Mind (Constable, London, 2010), I argue with Gilbert that the more we understand the way our lives are scripted by inner archetypes and mentalities (more than likely encoded in our genes and promoted both consciously and unconsciously by our human societies), the more we can stand back, be more objective and take control of these archetypes and mentalities and indeed develop those of them we believe will be very profitable for our self-development and that of our families and societies.

Now, chapter 4, entitled "Threat and Self-Protection" explores one of the most important mechanisms in our minds - that is, our ability to detect and to respond to the many inevitable threats that life throws up.  Within this self-protection system lie such emotions as anxiety, anger and disgust.  Once again, such defense systems are really very ancient ones indeed and they do belong to our most ancient layer of the brain - our Reptilian Brain.  Therefore, it can be hard for the Cortical/Rational brain to control these baser protection systems. In fact these primitive defense systems can become dominant processes (unconsciously so) in our lives such that we are easily made anxious, irritable or depressed.  If we as individuals are submerged in such primitive feelings it is all the more difficult to break the surface into the fresh air of compassion.

Some Notable points from Chapter Four:

Tropea, Gennaio 2011
I love reading such books as that of Paul Gilbert because not alone are they deeply insightful into human nature and human psychology, they are also chock a block with interesting hard scientific facts, for instance, did you know that the struggle for life has been so difficult on our little blue planet  that the vast majority of species that have ever existed are now extinct - over 99% of them.

(a) Bodily Defenses:

These are very basic indeed.  Our immune systems are designed to help detect and expell harmful bacteria and other harmful agents that may attack our bodies.  Indeed, our digestive systems have been designed to expell toxic or noxious substances by way of vomiting and diarrhoea.

(b) Emotional Defenses:

(i) Feeling anxious is an obvious ancient emotional feeling.  We feel anxious when facing things that could harm us, with the added desire to run away to avoid them.  Some of us fear various types of animals - more commonly dogs and cats (I'm happily not among them as I am an animal lover!).  Some become anxious when they are asked to do some public speaking while others fear water, flying, while others still have an irrational fear of germs and uncleanliness.

(ii) Feeling angry is another ancient key self-protection emotion.  I am currently two anger-management groups at school where I am seeking to give pupils diagnosed with ADHD some strategies to help control their anger both in school and at home.  It is a long and laborious process.  This defense strategy seeks to use brute force when all else fails, or seems to fail.  Then, Gilbert also points out that there is a retaliatory type of anger too, that should under no circumstances be forgotten about because it is all too common.  This is linked  with our evolved need to protect the resources we feel we have built up over the years like status, social position as well as material things.  This is the anger-driven "get my own back" feeling.  This is what Gilbert says in this regard:  "While protective anxiety makes us disengage - that is run from or avoid something unpleasant or dangerous or submit to it - with anger, we want to engage more, to overcome the obstacle or to get the better of the other person..." (Op. cit., p. 143)

Gilbert also explains that unexpressed anger can result in that anger being directed inwards in the person and thereby becoming expressing itself in a bout of depression.

(iii) Feeling disgust and contempt for someone or something is also quite common.  This strong ancient feeling is designed primarily used to help us detect and to stay away from noxious substances.  From birth, infants and children will spit out bitter tastes and relish sweet ones.  We can all feel disgusted by and repelled by many things including our own behaviour and that of others.  Once again, Gilbert points out some interesting information from scientific studies such as the fact that researchers have shown that it is often when disgust and contempt are blended with fear and anger that we become capable of terrible things.  Lynching comes to my mind here, attacking and murdering sex-criminals etc.  Needless to say, one need only call to mind all the most outragious and horrific acts of history namely the atrocities committed by Hitler and Stalin.

What can we do?

Well, we can, of course educate ourselves like I am doing in writing this blog and this particular entry in it.  Thereby, we are becoming more aware of the complexities that go to make us up as human beings.  Awareness, as all psychotherapists and counsellors are aware is 50% of the battle against any problem.  Then, the next inevitable step, if we have the courage to take it, is to make a decision and help ourselves by changing our behaviours.  At the moment I am attempting to trim down by about a stone and I have put certain things in place like an appropriate diet and an exercise regime. 

Growing in awareness means learning to listen to our emotions and to trace them back to their origins (in the Reptile Brain) and their triggers (my sweet tooth for example, my love of wine and food etc: Hence I will not keep certain things in my larder at home thereby obviating the trigger of the more ancient drive too eat sweet things etc.  In like manner, I attempt on a weekly basis in m y anger-management classes to help the students grow in awareness of the triggers that set off their explosive bouts of anger.  Awarenesss of these triggers will allow them to put in place appropriate avoidance techniques or strategies to defuse the bomb.

Gilbert, like any good scientific and professional psychologist offers us a very good rat story which set some poor rats up for experiencing heightened anxiety.  I'll let the author tell the story with its moral:

A rat was trained to run a maze for food if a red circle appeared above the maze entrance.  If a blue square appeared this meant that the rat woulkd emcounter an electric shock within the maze and so it should be avoided.  All went well while there were clear read circles and clear blue squares.  But then the researchers created a purple ellipse.  The poor rat - now terribly confused because it couldn't decide whether to run for the food or avoid the shock - showed high levels of fear, disorganized behaviour and confudsion.  This became known as "experimental neurosis" and demonstrated how our brains can become very distressed and aroused in high-conflict situations where there are incompatible alternatives.  (Ibid.,  159)

Having raised our awareness of all our primitive drives and feelings as recounted abouve, having appraised ourselves of all the relevant reading and research we make decisions to change our behaviours through the use of clear and informed decisions, putting in place new behaviours, literally taking action.  Above all we will change our behaviours, albeit slowly through the use of meditation techniques, developing a positive mental attitude and by becomimng evermore compassionate for ourselves because many of the above so-called faults are the result of evolution's little quirks.  However, if we have raised our awareness, understood our essential nature and have failed to do anything about our faults, it is then, and then only, that we can possibly blame ourselves for any harm caused to ourselves or to others.

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