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.

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

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.