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.

A Little Bit of Compassion 7

Compassion for Self

Chalk drawing on the footpath in Via del Corso, Roma, Dicembre, 2010
Once I met a young man at a spiritual retreat some twenty years or more ago who suffered from deep remorse over some argument, dispute or even physical fight he had with his father some years before.  It's so long ago now that I forget the exact details he told me.  However, these details are not important at all, as the salient feature of the memory of this occasion is that that poor young man had never ever managed to forgive himself for what had happened.  In short, this person was unable to show compassion for himself. He was so full of remorse that he brings that wonderful line from possibly our second greatest Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, to my mind:  "Remorse is the devil's contrition!"

I have been of the belief for some years now that humankind has vastly over-rated its own importance in the universal scheme of things.  We still unconsciously cling to a rather Ptolemaic psychological view of the universe where we ourselves are the centre of importance.  I have also come to the conclusion that we have also over-rated the centrality of the notion of individuality, which is really only a concept/notion that has come to the fore in the last several hundred years.  A good Marxist or even materialist, or even agnostic Buddhist like myself, would then be able to offer learned opinions on the consequent delusional notions modern people would have about private property.  Another way of putting all of the above would be to say that we have over-spiritualized our essence.  Now, I am not saying that we are not spiritual "beings" at all.  What I am saying is that we have downplayed far too much the very animality, carnality and corporeality of our very nature.  We need a healthier understanding of our bodies, not an idealized, image-centred one that can bring about such horrible medical conditions like anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

Real life, Tropea, Gennaio, 2011
 As I age my body is beginning to take a more and more important place in my life.  It's almost as if it has literally had enough of all the mental gymnastics of the strutting peacock that can often masquerade as the idealized self.  My body as I age is calling out:  "Look here, I have blood pressure, I'm overweight and you are polluting me again and again with toxins.  Take note:  I need exercise.  I need good and healthy food.  I'm all you really have.  You are not just a mind or a spirit or even a ghost in a body.  This ageing body and whatever it is that is you are one and the same thing.  I think you got it right again and again in this blog where you said that you were really a Body-Mind or a Mind-Body; that somehow the "you" that is "you" is some integrated reality, not an either/or or even a mind/spirit/soul in a body but certainly a both/and."

I believe that when we over-rationalize or over-spiritualize our true nature that we are engaging in another kind of reductionism that fails to give due regard to the body, and one which fails miserably to give any little regard to the integrated nature of the Body-Mind that we are.  I also believe that when we so rationalize and spiritualize our nature that we become less forgiving of our bodily and instinctual weaknesses.  In other words when we engage in this type of cultural thinking we are setting the bar far too high for our weak natures.  Now, I am not saying - most definitely NOT saying that we should not aspire to standards and to values.  Yes, we should.  However, we must be realistic.  Being realistic means accepting myself in all my faults and strengths; accepting my humanity "warts and all" as the cliché has it.  How many poor deluded religious souls are tormented by deluded pastors and also by delusional beliefs that they are really really wicked people.  Now, these poor deluded souls suffer from a heightened sense of their own sinfulness and worthlessness.  In traditional theology such people were said to be suffering from scrupulosity.  Thankfully, the numbers of this type of believers are growing less with the inevitable onslaught of modern ideas from society.

And so by accepting our more basic and more primal animal nature; by accepting some reasonable structural model of the psyche like the Freudian structural model  where the Id is literally a cesspit of our repressed animal desires and instincts; by accepting ourselves in the round as beings on the road to integration or individuation, self-realization or self-actualization; by accepting our weaknesses and failures as well as our strengths and successes; by accepting ourselves "warts and all" we are more likely to have become compassionate people, persons who have compassion both for themselves and for others.

A Few Relevant Quotations:

Let me start with one of my favourite psychiatrists, Carl Gustave Jung.  He said once that the most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.  How true that statement was and is!  Can we really say that we accept ourselves completely?  Probably not, but the idea is to strive to do so.  We are very much a work in progress.  We are beings who are designing ourselves as we go along.  Personal growth like all growth is something that never stops.  It is up to us to see that it is going in the right direction.   Then, let us remember what the 19th century American novelist Mart Twain once opined that "a man cannot be comfortable without his own approval."  To put this more colloquially, any individual must learn to live with him/herself and be able to sleep peacefully each night.

Then, we remember that Einstein once said that "once we accept our limits, we can go beyond them".   I suppose for this to happen we have to learn to train both our mind and our heart to be bigger and more compassionate with themselves.  Firstly, we must become aware of our problems and contradictions, look them squarely in the eye.  Now awareness, I believe is 50% of the solution.  Gradually, through meditation, one looks with love and compassion into the very eyes of our problems and concerns until we eventually learn to accept them; until we learn to change what we can change about them; until we learn that we cannot change some of them no matter how hard we try; that real compassion lies in this willingness to sit and face all of oneself and all of one's problems head-on with the equanimity only meditation can put at our disposal.   Then, as Dr. Robert Anthony so aptly puts it: "You are wholly complete and your success in life will be in direct proportion to your ability to accept this truth about you".

Finally, in a sweeping, but no less truthful, statement Russell Rowe (see his own website here: RR )states that "the fruit of self-understanding is self acceptance. The fruit of self acceptance is self-love. The fruit of self-love is love for the world. The fruit of love for the world is service to the world. The fruit of service to the world is peace" 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 6

Self -Acceptance

Oranges - not quite ripe for the picking - Tropea, Calabria
Whatever about the many reasons we humans can give to the rather interesting and totally open-ended question as to what the meaning of life is, one thing remains certain and that is that we can do nothing of importance or consequence in our own lives if we do not believe in ourselves, if we cannot live comfortably in our own skins, if we cannot accept ourselves as we are.  There is much we can do to improve ourselves  - from going to the gym, engaging in all manner of courses offered by various colleges and institutions, attending psychologists and counsellors to all the creative pursuits like art, writing, crafts and hobbies.  However, in the end, if we fail to accept ourselves we certainly will be very unhappy indeed.  Whatever life is about; whatever theories or philosophies we may advance to explain it; whatever we may do in life by way of jobs and lifestyles, in the end it all boils down to surviving it as best we possibly can and to developing as many coping skills as we can to navigate the frail bark of the self through both the calm and stormy waters that life inevitably brings with it.

Compassion for Self

As a mere human creature among billions of other human creatures who walk upon this earth I am no better or no worse than any other one of them.  Thinking in terms of numbers can be humbling indeed.  Then put your creatureliness alongside the billions of other humans who have and who will walk this earth.  Further, put your creatureliness firmly in the animal kingdom alongside all those many thousands of other species of animals and ask about your significance in the scheme of things.  Do we humans ascribe too much importance to the special place of our uniqueness as separate human beings?  In short, have we over-rated the significance of the self, the significance of the individual in the scheme of things?  These questions are worth asking, and indeed the questions are often more important than any quick answers that can be given because in asking them we are taking ourselves seriously less seriously if you pardon the paradox.  Because we have evolved out of the simplest earliest creatures that crawled about in the oceans, seas and rivers, we are made from the fragile stuff of the earth, and therefore we can seriously have great compassion for this fragility.  We can further have greater compassion for our frail bark which sails through the many different weathers on the sea of life because we dare to create, to build, to dream and to love even though the storms of adversity blow against us.  The courage to create and to dream against the backdrop of inevitable extinction is possibly the greatest distinguishing characteristic of our human species.  As Shakespeare so aptly put it in the words of the character Prospero: "We are such stuff //As dreams are made on; and our little life//Is rounded with a sleep." (The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 156–158)  At this stage I should like, with the humble objective in mind of rooting the human person in his/her biological or biochemical origins in the flow of life (Professor Paul Gilbert), or firmly in the river of genes as Professor Riuchard Dawkins would put it, to focus on the evolution of the human brain.  

The Tripartite Brain:

While Professor Paul Gilbert does not mention Paul D. MacLean (1913 – 2007) by name, he does mention his theory of the evolution of the brain, viz., the development of the tripartite or triune brain.  MacLean was an American physician and neuroscientist who made significant contributions in the fields of physiology, psychiatry, and brain research through his work at Yale Medical School and the National Institute of Mental Health.  MacLean's evolutionary triune brain theory proposed that the human brain was in reality three brains in one: the reptilian complex, the limbic system, and the neocortex.  This proved to be the most efficient model for understanding the brain in terms of its evolutionary history.  According to this theory, these three mentioned distinct brains emerged successively in the course of evolution and now co-inhabit the human skull.

(a) The reptilian brain, the oldest of the three, controls the body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. Our reptilian brain includes the main structures found in a reptile's brain: the brainstem and the cerebellum. The reptilian brain is reliable but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive.  It is the most ancient of the brains. It has two hemispheres, just like the neocortex, and it may be that they relate functionally to the left and right hemispheres of the neocortex. It consists of the upper part of the spinal cord and the basal ganglia, the diencephalon, and parts of the midbrain - all of which sits atop the spinal column like a knob in the middle of our heads.

Dr. Suzanne LaCombe, on her webpage puts it this way:

The reptilian brain is located in the brain stem and both terms are used synonymously. Phylogenetically-speaking, it was the first part of the modern brain to develop in human evolution. It operates behind the scenes, regulating our survival needs: food, oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure and reproduction, among many others. The brainstem is like a bodyguard who's always watching your back, constantly scanning the environment for potential threats. The reptilian brain also decides whether you will move into fight or flight. The thinking brain is too slow for such an important task. So for example, when a 90 mile an hour curve ball's coming at you, it's the reptilian brain that reflexively jerks your head out of the way before you even realize what’s happening. We can't leave our reactions up to the thinking side of the brain. We'd still be back there lying on the playing field wondering what happened and how we got that lump on the head! When you think of your "instincts" think, reptilian brain. It's responsible for our survival related functions like:






•fight or flight

•movement, posture and balance.  (See this link: My Shrink )
As a Resource and Learning Support Teacher with some background in counselling I am engaged in running anger management. anxiety management and EBD groups at school.  Students with all manner of behavioural problems like ADD, ADHD and ODD are working out of this ancient brain.  I also have the privilege of teaching a sixteen year old boy with Asperger's Syndrome and OCD.  Undoubtedly OCD is rooted in the ancient Reptilian brain I believe.  Most of our basic drives would seem to be located there.  Indeed, MacLean contended that the reptilian complex was responsible for species typical instinctual behaviours involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays.  Once again here I find Dr Lacombe's insights interesting and indeed helpful:

The reptilian brain is an ancient beast. It was developed over 100 million years ago. The higher brain or the neocortex came along a mere 40,000 years ago. So, when the reptilian brain is on alert, it's pretty hard for a youngster like our neocortex to tell a 100 million year old brain to behave! One of the insights we've learned from body psychotherapy is that hardship in counseling is needlessly provoked if the reptilian brain isn't calmed down first. That is, it's very difficult to dig into our psyche (e.g. and explore childhood issues) when the reptilian brain is calling the shots.  However, when the nervous system is regulated and balanced, it far easier to move through our emotions.  Emotionally triggering material will be that much more difficult if the reptilian brain is activated. When you are suffering from high anxiety--by definition--your activation level is high and the reptilian brain is controlling too much of how you will respond to events in your life. (See the above link)
(b) The Limbic Brain or Mammalian Brain:

The limbic brain emerged in the first mammals. It can record memories of behaviours that produced agreeable and disagreeable experiences, so it is responsible for what are called emotions in human beings. The main structures of the limbic brain are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The limbic brain is the seat of the value judgments that we make, often unconsciously, that exert such a strong influence on our behaviour. Whatever the merits of the triune brain hypothesis, MacLean's recognition of the limbic system as a major functional system in the brain has won wide acceptance among neuroscientists, and is generally regarded as his most important contribution to the field. MacLean maintained that the structures of the limbic system arose early in mammalian evolution (hence "paleomammalian") and were responsible for the motivation and emotion involved in feeding, reproductive behavior, and parental behavior.

(c) The Neocortical Brain:

The neocortex first assumed importance in primates and culminated in the human brain with its two large cerebral hemispheres that play such a dominant role. These hemispheres have been responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. The neocortex is flexible and has almost infinite learning abilities. It is also what has essentially enabled human cultures to develop.

However, it is most important to note that these three parts of the brain do not operate independently of one another. They have established numerous interconnections through which they influence one another. The neural pathways from the limbic system to the cortex, for example, are especially well developed.  See the following link for an excellent discussion of these three levels of the brain: The Triune Brain

Our love will end when 1+1=3:  Graffiti: Tropea, December, 2010
Professor Gilbert maintains that it is in the ancient brain or the reptilian brian that the archetypes, as defined by Professor Carl Gustave Jung are located.  These are powerful innate patterns for feeling, thginking and behaviour, e.g., to seek status, control a territory and find a mate.  Interestingly he also says alliteratively that the reptiles which emerged into the flow of life around 500 million years ago were basically concerned with eating, gaining and defending their territories and, of course, mating - in other words: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing and F---ing.
Having acknowledged these three levels of the human brain, Gilbert argues that we are now ready to see where compassion can be learned as a skill to counteract the baser and more primordial instincts of the ancient or reptilian mind.  In this regard, let me finish this post with Professor Gilbert's own words:

Before we leave our evolutionary journey, let's end on the major optimistic note of this book: while many dark and cruel potentials have emerged from the struggle for life and can live in our minds (as so much of our great art and literature has shown), we are also capable of compassion.  But compassion, too, is an emergent potential of our minds carved from nature.  It is easy to focus on many of the darker archetypes of our minds, and forget that out of that darkness of the struggle for survival and reproduction, out of threat and fear, has emerged our capacity for caring and compassion.  (Op. cit., p. 135)

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 5


Fishermen mending their nets, Soverato, January 2011
As you will see by the title of today's post I am continuing my reflections on Professor Paul Gilbert's Book The Compassionate Mind (Constable, London, 2010). In the interim I have posted three poems, two from Robert Lowell and one from W.B. Yeats to break the monotony.  I feel their two very different and sui generis styles add some more depth to our considerations on the nature of compassion.

Complacency and laziness are two sins/failings that lie within our nature, or very likely indeed they may be learnt behaviours as traditionally the human animal was built for survival, and these two traits would certainly shorten one's life in ancient times.  It is, therefore, quite helpful and challenging if we push ourselves to achieve any goal that is worth achieving - learning to swim, learning to drive, exercising to get down weight, attending to our psychological as well as physical needs, studying to take a certificate, diploma or degree.  All of these activities, which are geared towards improving our self-esteem are clearly to be advocated.  They will give us a greater sense of self.  In a sense doing all these things is in essence a compassionate stance towards the self.

The Myth of the Self

Within the existential philosophies it has been argued that our very lives must become our projects. (Sartre et al)  Indeed, what greater project can any individual have than the project of his /her own life?  One of greatest personal Copernican revolutions that occurred to me in my lifetime was having to spend some seven weeks in a psychiatric hospital when I was forty years of age to help alleviate a very bad bout of clinical depression from which I was then suffering.  For the first time in my life I had encountered the chameleon nature of the self.  Indeed, I remember saying to myself that I was little more than a collocation of chemicals, recalling a phrase somewhat similar from Bertrand Russell's writings.  As the heavy-duty psychiatric drugs kicked in my sense of self became all too fluid and all too nebulous.  Indeed, then I had to go on an anti-depressant for life.  Without this, then, I should slip back into some sort of chemical hell where the neurotransmitters sparked wrongly or did not spark at all; where they made the wrong connections or none at all; where synapses literally did their own thing - wrongly at that!  In short on an existential level I encountered the reality of the myth of self.

Gilbert speaks of the "illusion of self" from which we suffer.  Let me quote some of his words here:

Some believe that, by training our minds in certain ways (which will include meditation), we can have insights about this whole "nature of self" business.  We may come to see it more as an illusion, the sense of a separate self evolved partly to help direct and regulate those old "brain/mind" systems in their pursuiit of survival and the reproduction of genmes.  Tricky that one, isn't it?  When you stand back from the sense of "being an individual self and recognise that you are the repository of passions and feelings that have been knocking about for millions of years,  that in a way they live through you, but they're not you, you can develop new insights into the very nature of your mind.  Consider, too, that if the "me-ness of me" is a pattern of firings in the brain, I might be able to train it to adopt certain patterns that will give me experiences of well-being and very different experiences of "me-ness.".  I might be able to exert some control over the patterns that get etched onto my "field of consciousness." (Op.cit., p. 47  Italics are Gilbert's)
I have argued, and I believe Gilbert would agree with me, that if there is "the curse of the self", (a phrase he uses many times in the present book) there must also be "the cure of the self."  I use the word "cure" here because of its alliterative concordance with the first phrase, though I intuitively prefer the notion of healing to the notion of cure; although, come to think of it, this second phrase "the cure of the self" has a long tradition within Christian theology where certain spiritual practices were seen as a "cure of souls."

Tropea, Calabria, Gennaio 2011
Therefore, it is Gilbert's contention that compassionate practices like meditation, contemplation, writing poems, attending counsellors and psychotherapists and journalling to list a small number are the ways in which we may heal or cure ourselves.  Such compassion for ourselves involves building up our senses of self; using our imagination through our creative practices to accomplish our very own project - to be as fully "me" as I can.  In this sense my Self, my real Self is a highly personal, imaginative and holistic construct.

And, then, dear reader, we must also learn to confront the reality of our own limitations.  At school and college we must learn to live with what we are less good at, and to choose subjects that will be able to bring forth our true potential.  In short, we learn to be content with doing our best, and in knowing that we can do no more than that.  Even heroes eventually learnt that they, too, had feet of clay!  As a Resource and Learning Support teacher, the biggest task I face is teaching pupils to cease "beating themselves up" when they are poor at Math, English or whatever.  Slowly, I try to build up their self-esteem, and bit by bit teach them that they will grasp this or that topic if they only believe in themselves; if only they try to be less frustrated with themselves; if only they can accept that it's okay not to understand this or that;  that the lesson of life is that all of us must learn to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves because none of us can understand everything anyway.  Life is hard, very hard.  But the wisdom of human culture has taught us ways to cope, and effecetive ways at that.  That's why at our peril we dismiss as nonsense the wisdom of all the various religions, even if we are sceptics, agnostics or atheists.