Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 9



Il fiume Arno, Firenze, Estate 2006
Introduction

The thrust of these posts of late has been about promoting compassion for the self.  The more compassionate we are for ourselves, the greater compassion we can have for others.  Compassion has had a long tradition in all the great religions of the world, even though much damage, mayhem and destruction have been done in the name of such religions.  It can, of course, be argued that it was the evil in some, if not a considerable minority, of the humans who make up such religious groups that brought this destruction about.  However, such argumentation, true as it is, is beyond the scope of my thoughts here.   If we look to the life and teaching of the Buddha and of Christ we see a considerable concentration on love and compassion.  We know from the actual lives of these great founders and from the exemplary lives of their most faithful followers that compassion for self and others does indeed work.  Our author, whose book I am discussing, Paul Gilbert argues that compassion is a good and useful skill we can all learn and use profitably to grow to our fullest potential as human beings.

Chapter four of his book The Compassionate Mind highlighted our primitive and primordial defense mechanisms in fight and flight, anxiety and anger.  Now chapter five explores the polar opposites of these ancient defense mechanisms and looks at our twin positive emotion systems which he calls (i) The Incentive/Resource-Seeking System and (ii) The Soothing/Contentment System, neither of which titles I find very memorable at all, and I will seek to give them names in this post which I'll be able to remember.  I feel Professor Gilbert could have taken more time and come up with more user-friendly terms.  For the moment I'll call the first system The Highs-Seeking System and the second The Calming/Soothing System.  Now these I can remember as they are the two sides of the one coin as it were.

System 1:  The Highs-Seeking System

Il Ponte Vecchio, Firenze, Estate, 2006
This is all about getting a buzz or a high from our activities and pursuits.  I have just returned from and hour and twenty minutes in the gym, and I am literally buzzing and on a high.  The goal for me is to lose about a stone in weight.  I have changed my diet and am going to the gym three times a week with my brother.  Now, I love the way Gilbert gives us good and decent scientific facts throughout the book.  If I may make one criticism, though not a particularly major one as I'm enjoying the book, his writing could be much clearer.  He makes the reader work to tease out what he is getting at.  In other words, he's not a great populariser, though his stuff is good.  Anyway, this criticism aside, I'm enjoying the effort of attacking his text.  He tells us that this Highs-Seeking System is partially regulated by a chemical in our brains called Dopamine. 

Also to describe this system we hear people used such terms as: "I was hyped up," "He's wired (to the moon)", "S/he's on a high,"  "It's a great buzz."  I've mentioned the gym already, but we can get these buzzes in all manners and means:- winning a game of chess, a computer game, solving a puzzle, working out a crossword, gaining a certificate, diploma or degree, running a 10k route, completeing a marathon, half-marathon or mini-marathon or simply going on a quick walk.  Things that give me a buzz: writing this blog, reading literature and philosophy, teaching, lecturing, going to the gym (a wholly new and exhilarating experience for me now - four times so far since I joined over a week ago.  Long may it last!) and so on.  Now winning the lotto is also another natural, but very rare occurrence!  That does help the dopamine to flow!

I have to agree with Professor Gilbert about how addicted a lot of young people have become to computer games.  The excitement of playing these games is the attraction.  Working half of my teaching time in an Asperger's Unit in a mainstream school I find that a high number of the AS pupils are addicted to these games, particularly those that involve aggression.  These games may indeed overstimulate the dopamine drive system.  Here is what Gilbert says and I believe he is correct:
Each time the children score or make a hit, their brains may be receiving little bursts of dopamine that stimulate both the incentive/resource-seeking and the threat/self-protection systems - after all, these games are deliberately designed to be tense and stimulating and to have this kind of impact on our children's brains.  The problem is that, if you overstimulate these systems, what happens when you withdraw the stimulant?  Well some people can end up being easily bored, needing constant excitement to produce energy, and can become agitated and anxious if they don't get their "fix."  The need to give ourselves constant buzzes of excitement can also be a cause of an addiction to internet pornography.  (Op. cit., p. 173)
Indeed, it is worth stating here that the sex act itself is a source of buzz or hype to a large degree, and indeed it is promoted much through advertising - indeed it is purposely used in that industry to sell the products of its clients.

A note on Drug Addiction:

I can see now how people can become hooked on drugs. These highs do indeed give us a great sense of well-being. However, we all have to put a hell of a lot of natural energy into achieving all the things noted above. Now, our innate laziness - which makes us seek out shortcuts to these much-wanted and much-praised highs - can and does kick in! In my 53 years on this wonderful, if at times painful and sad, planet, I have come across a growing minority of pupils who have sought and some who still seek to take the dreadful shortcut of drugs in order to exoperience artificial highs. How sad! One of my recent pupils, who is only 16, had to be told to leave our school because he was "using", and I believe he is now in some rehabilitation centre. Whether he will manage to become clean I do not know! Here's wishing he does!

One of the major lessons I have learned from life is that there are no real short-cuts, certainly not by the way of drugs. I freely admit that we are all addicts in a way. I also freely admit that I was, and no doubt still am, an addict to sugur and to all things sweet and wonderful. However, I am now a whole two weeks off eating sugary things and have lost 3 and a half pounds in weight. It is a struggle for me, but a struggle worth pursuing because I already feel so much better physically and mentally since I have started my weight-loss programme.

Now when people take drugs such as amphetamines or cocaine (all the rage these days) they are trying to simulate the more natural "hyped-up" or "buzz" sense of pleasure. However, they are really fooling themselves because they have not made the real physical or mental effort to so do. Something that is artificial is really tawdry and worthless! Who wants a plastic flower when s/he can grow real roses in the garden?

The Myth of More

As I write I am struck by a useful pair of opposites, viz., The Myth of More (I love alliteration!) and The Myth of Less is More/Better!  The former is a myth which promotes falsehood, I believe, while the latter is one which promotes the truth.  How often have we heard the cliché:  "Sure you cannot get enough of a good thing!"  From the moment we go to school we are trained to want more and more, to get better and better results.  Then the advertsining on the mass media hits home:  Why be satisfied with X, when you can have SUPERX?  Why be content with your Fiat Punto when you can have a FourWheel Drive?  Why go on one holiday to the sun a year, when you can go twice or even three or four times?  Why live in a council estate when you can get a loan and move up in the world?  Why not have an attic room, a games room etc etc?  I personally don't ever remember any teacher telling us that we could be content with what we have.  The whole drive is to better ourselves all the time.  Now, here is where my favourite subject philosophy comes in - what does it mean to be better or to better oneself?  Cannot Less be better?  Cannot less be more, to put the question more powerfully, if paradoxically?  There is also the importance of slowing down and living in the now if we are to become healthy human beings mentally and ophysically.  There is the sheer importance of learnin g to live in the now, learning to appreciate life, learning to stop and stare, learning peace and contentment.  These, I will discuss in the next post as they are appropriate to the second system, The Calming/Soothing System.


Half Empty/Half Full

Above I have mentioned the wonderful opposition between the Myth of More and the Myth of Less is More.  Now another pair of opposites hits my mind, viz., Half Empty and Half Full.  Advertisers want us to believe that our glasses are half empty, because they want us to strive to keep on filling that glass, to keep on spending and wanting more and more and more.  The whole capitalist system is built on this Myth of Fullness, another metaphor for the Myth of More.  Now in all of this we are compelled to compare ourselves with others.  Tom has X and so I want X to be as good as Tom.  Comparisons they say are odiuos and indeed they are.  It is a life-long struggle for us to relax and calm down and to stop wanting to be like X or Y or Z or in desiring what X or Y or Z may have.

I have found that much of my teaching is concerned with building self-esteem.  I am teaching children who are on the Autistic Spectrum as well as others who are weak at Maths and English.  Much of my time is spent setting work that they find manageable and in praising them for their efforts and achievements.  The effort is as important as the achievement.  The participation is as important as the winning.  The striving to do the particular problem as as important as getting the answer.  It is okay to have one's glass half full because we don't need it full all the time or certainly not over-flowing!  Don't believe what the advertisers tell you.  It's okay to work at your pace.  You're you, not X or Y or Z!

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