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Welcome!

John Daniels photoWelcome to my thoughtstream on the topic of creative change. I appreciate your visit and hope you’ll stay a while.

Tracts of Revolution explores the dynamics of human creativity as it swirls in our cells, pulses through our bodies, connects us to each other, and constructs the magnificent panoply of world cultures. You will find two distinct currents to this thoughtstream that may interest you.

“Conversations” are blog posts reflecting on the creative works of authors and artists of our present day and recent past. These creators communicated their visions of reality and the human future through words and other art-forms, partly to share them with the rest of us, but also because they finally couldn’t resist the force that seized and inspired them. I name that force “the creative spirit,” and am convinced that it inhabits all of us – while only a relatively few of us are courageous (or foolhardy) enough to “go with the flow.”

I have a lot to say about spirituality and religion, but this shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that I consider the creative spirit especially religious or “spiritual” in a more narrowly religious sense. The authors I bring into conversation are both religious and nonreligious, believers and atheists, metaphysically-minded psychonauts and down-to-earth humanists. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what ideological camp you inhabit, what country you call home, what language you speak, which way you’re oriented, or whether you are charming or abrasive. You and I are creators, and it’s time we take responsibility for this incredible power with which the universe has endowed our species.

For a more practical and therapeutic approach to creativity, check out my blog Braintracts. Over the past 30 years I have developed a life-change program that helps individuals take creative control of their lives and step more intentionally into the worlds they really want to inhabit. This approach is brain-based and solution-focused, pulling from the current research of neuroscience and the best practices in human empowerment (counseling and coaching).

The Medieval art/science of metallurgy investigated the molecular secrets of changing natural ores into metals and other alloys. The process was mysterious and the research traditions of those early scientists often took on the shroud of an almost gnostic mysticism. Mentallurgy is my attempt to remove the shroud of secrecy from the question of how the power of attention is transformed into the attitudes, beliefs, moods and drives behind human behavior. If you don’t particularly like the world you presently inhabit, then create a different one! Mentallurgy can show you how. Click over to www.braintracts.wordpress.com

You and Your World

If I told you that your identity and the world around you are not really real, you’d probably dismiss me as another of those quacky hucksters who want to sell you some crock of bullshit. There are lots of them around, and you definitely need to hold on to your common sense as well as your wallet when they start opening their boxes of foolery. Better just move on and keep your feet in reality.

But I’m not after your money, and I don’t have a cult for you to join.

When I say that your identity and the world around you aren’t really real, I mean they aren’t real in the same way your body, brain, and the physical environment around you are real.

The names of what you see when you look around yourself, the value things have for you or somebody else, the meaning of this, that, and the whole shebang – all of it is constructed and projected by your mind onto the reality of what you see. And then you apprehend the projected image as having objective existence, as a reality existing apart from you and outside your mind.

Fascinating!

It won’t be surprising to learn that personal identity (self) and its context of meaning (world) are as variant and numerous as there are egos on the planet. A review of your own experience growing up and coming of age will confirm the assertion regarding the constructed nature – let’s just say the imaginary character – of who you are and the world you live in.

If you had a better understanding of how it all gets going to begin with, you might not only accept the claim but embrace it as foundational to a revolutionary and liberating philosophy of life.

In our scientific age a valid explanation cannot invoke alien agencies, transcendent deities, or occult powers in our effort to understand reality and the projection of a world. So we will begin where our grasp on reality is firmly established, in the fact that you are, at this level at least, a brain in a body. It doesn’t sound very romantic, I know, or even all that interesting. But there’s something going on here that you need to understand.


The neuro-architecture of your brain is an evolutionary record of nervous systems in animal life on planet Earth. Your brainstem regulates the many physiological events that generate and support the life force in your body. Its work is “unconscious,” by which we mean it is autonomic, involuntary, and compulsive – below the threshold of your conscious attention and control.

At this level, you are a brain in a body staying alive from moment to moment.

Moving up a level in your brain’s neuro-anatomy engages a constellation of structures and networks known as the limbic system (hidden within the dashed circle in my diagram above). Its primary role is to adaptively match your body’s internal state to the changing situations of your physical environment.

The repertoire of limbic programs it uses to do this are called emotions, and each program is designed to assess sensory information from the environment, activate and attune your nervous system to what’s going on there, and motivate adaptive behavior that will help you stay safe, grab an opportunity, gain an advantage, or whatever the situation holds.

While the brainstem operates at a level below conscious awareness, your limbic brain does its thing before you are consciously aware of what’s going on, letting you in on the secret only after a half-second delay. For that reason, consciousness at the limbic level is said to be “preconscious.” In the evolutionary history of consciousness, this short delay served the longer prospect of adaptive learning – but only after the priority of survival was satisfied.

So let’s pause to appreciate the amazing contribution of your limbic brain to the evolutionary adventure of consciousness on Earth. Beyond the urgent task of regulating the life force in its resident body, the brain now had the capacity to manage the body more adaptively to a wide range of survival situations in its physical environment. Every new situation afforded another opportunity to recall previous episodes, anticipate what was coming, refine its strategic response, and learn from the outcome.

Whereas the brainstem’s memory is about doing the same thing, instinctually, over and over again, the limbic system can build an archive of discrete episodes of experience and call them up in situations that happen to activate any part of the pattern.

Basal animals, whose consciousness is almost entirely invested in the brainstem work of regulating the internal life force of the body, behave in today’s generation exactly as they did millions of years ago. Limbic animals, however, are capable of adapting and learning new responses to the changing situations of their environment. Although for the vast majority of them the physical environment hasn’t changed all that much over the millenniums of time, to the degree it has changed, so too has their emotional repertoire and range of learning expanded accordingly.

Of course, you are also considered a “limbic animal,” but your brain has an additional layer to its neuro-architecture. Lots of species have a cerebral cortex as well, but it is most highly evolved in humans. The bi-lateral set of structures (one on each side of the brain) that began in limbic brains continues at this higher level, but the branching associations of the cortical brain are exponentially increased, adding to emotional learning and situational adaptation a capacity for symbolic language, creative imagination, pretend play, problem solving, making meaning and abstract thought.

The remarkable product of all this cortical activity is called your world, or as labeled in the above illustration, your “world project.” With the powerful tool of symbolic language, your creative imagination is, in this very moment, telling stories and constructing a world around you. In fact, this projected context of meaning is what creates the performance space for you to be a self and become somebody. “Self” and “world,” that is to say, go together or co-arise in the creative work of your cerebral cortex.

To summarize, your brainstem anchors you in the life force of your body. Your limbic system manages your body across the changing situations of your physical environment. And now, your cerebral cortex takes the core identity of these situational costumes and projects around it the semantic theater of your world.

From the constructed vantage point of this core identity, or ego, you can look inward (subjectively) to your self and outward (objectively) to your world.

It’s common to regard the environment and your world as synonyms for the same thing, which might be named Reality. But what I referred to above as the foundational claim of a revolutionary and liberating philosophy of life itself grows from the insight that environment and world are profoundly different.

The physical environment, as well as your basal and lower limbic levels of experience, is the factual realm. Your world project, though, including your higher limbic and cortical levels of experience, make up (quite literally) a fictional realm where you pursue imaginary things like identity, purpose, freedom and meaning itself.

Just because you share the social stage with others who also pursue these things doesn’t make them any less fictional and imaginary.

Indeed, it is precisely because you and others agree on their significance that such things preoccupy your waking thoughts and fill your dreams at night.

Now, that’s a lot to digest, so let me close this meditation by inviting you to imagine what kind of world would be constructed around the prevalent limbic programs of self-interest, social anxiety, and zero-sum competition. And then how about a world arising out of compassion, generosity, and goodwill?

You and I have the power to create and choose which world we will live in.

*Click*

Existential disorientation is an apt name for our diagnostic condition as a species, what’s called “the human condition.” We wake up and find ourselves here, but we don’t really know where we are. We feel lost, homeless, in exile, stranded on a remote island, alone in the middle of everything. There is some comfort in knowing that humans have been feeling this way for a long time; ever since we “woke up” to a self-conscious existence, in fact.

Each of us repeats in our individual development what our species underwent in its evolution so many millenniums ago.

To help get our bearings, all of the great cultures came up with their own versions of what is known as the Wheel of Fortune – or the Wheel of Fate, the Wheel of Destiny, or just the Wheel of Existence. It is conceived as turning, like a wheel, but also in the image of a great circle, a kaleidoscope that, when held still, “clicks” in place a visual scheme of four quadrants, each offering a distinct perspective on where we are.

The contemplation of these four quadrants in their totality, and of the Wheel through a full turn of its four phases, has long been a foundational practice of spiritual wisdom, promising to clarify our confusion, resolve our ignorance, and finally set us free.


Starting in the top-left quadrant or phase of the Wheel, our gaze is drawn outward and upward from the Ground, though the Genesis (birth or beginning) of all things, and into the vast Cosmos encompassing us in its immensity. Ground is the power of being (the be-ing, or simply Being) that generates the multitude of beings on their various scales of organizational complexity.

This Ground isn’t underneath them as a separate reality, like the literal ground under our feet, but is rather their very essence (from esse, being): the Reality informing them from deep within.

The mathematical operator that best represents this quadrant of Reality is the ‘plus’ sign: adding, connecting, growing, filling and expanding; the sum of all things. We see that nothing exists utterly on its own, but is part of a larger order and arrangement (Greek Cosmos), just as it also contains within itself (=) smaller elements in relationship with each other (+).

Moving clockwise, we enter a second quadrant of the Wheel where all of this positive (+) order starts to break apart (÷) into more stable states. Every type of organization is relatively far from equilibrium, as we learn from complexity theory, which means that it takes energy just to maintain itself. The second law of thermodynamics identifies a principle at work in Reality that is constantly pulling on the bonds and joints that hold things together, “seeking” an arrangement that is more stable and less expensive, energetically speaking.

Because humans, particularly human egos, can be so fixated on Quadrant 1 with its value-added features and positive (+) outlook on Reality, Quadrant 2 is commonly regarded as negative in a moral sense (i.e., bad or evil), when it is merely divisive (÷) in a nonmoral, energetic sense. Its principle of Entropy provides a necessary counterbalance to the Genesis principle on the other side of things, and without which there would be an unconstrained trend of inflation toward rapid exhaustion and burnout.

Since organizational complexity entails an energetic investment pushing it farther from equilibrium, we should appreciate Entropy for its counter-pull toward a more balanced, stable, and enduring arrangement. It’s not as if Entropy had to be introduced as a corrective measure at some later point. It is present and at work from the very beginning, ensuring that the emerging organization is strong and resilient enough to resist and temporarily override its disintegrative effect.

Eventually, however, Quadrant 2 reminds us that every form of organization – from atoms to galaxies, from living bodies to global communities – will weaken in its bonds, come loose at the joints, and collapse into more stable states. In some cases, the Quadrant 1 principle of Genesis will work to renew and rebuild the order, making it as strong or stronger than before.

But in most cases – and inevitably in every case – Entropy will succeed in dividing and breaking them down to nothing, where “no thing” remains. This end-state of Entropy is known as the Abyss.

Abyss is a purely empty concept. With respect to Quadrant 2 dynamics, it is the “no thing” that every existing form, organism, and organization eventually dissolves into. We can call it the abyss of extinction because it is where things come to the End and are no more. It was originally acknowledged in mythology as the The Void, Dark Gate, Grand Finale and Final End. Today’s science confirms its mystery without understanding very much about it, as a quantum field of “dark matter” into which everything in our known universe eventually disappears and dissolves away.

If Quadrant 2 looks into the Abyss from the vantage point of an individual form or organization, Quadrant 3 follows the drop into extinction by a process of subtraction (-): removal, elimination, and erasure. While Entropy divides and breaks things down to more stable states, Kenosis (Greek for emptying-out) annihilates every last vestige of discrete existence.

Like meteors (“falling stars”) dropping through the atmosphere and disintegrating into an indeterminate dust, Quadrant 3 is where nothing remains but Nothing, a formless and undifferentiated field of “dark energy” – what scientists believe is even deeper and more elementary than dark matter.

The emptiness (Kenosis) of the Abyss takes on the character of creative potential as we approach Quadrant 4 of the Wheel. Considered from the opposite side, of Cosmos, Chaos is absolute disorder: a total lack of form, organization, regularity, harmony, coherence, reason, rationality and meaning. Like the Abyss, Chaos has been widely cursed as morally antithetical to the gods and to all that is good, right, proper, and true.

What is Chaos? It is both nothing (no thing) and the essential nature of everything, the complete absence of discrete existence, yet the “stuff” that manifests in all that exists. According to the wisdom philosophy of Hinduism, it is Nirguna Brahman: ultimate reality without qualities, which manifests as Saguna Brahman in the qualified universe we sense and know. Science makes this distinction in terms of an “implicate” and “explicate” order, a hidden dimension and its outward, physical expression.

Chaos theory conceptualizes chaos as deep inside order (Cosmos), something like a sloping drop-off into increasingly random patterns of probability, approaching a state of spontaneous creativity.

Inside Quadrant 4, we are rising with the Wheel by a dynamic in polar opposition to the Entropy of Quadrant 2. Not a loosening up and coming-apart, but a fusion and magnification (×) of Energy, creating the conditions for Quadrant 1 cosmogenesis, the “birth of order.” Whereas above the Ground we can witness the actualization of this potential in the myriad forms and systems of existence, deep down inside it a principle of exponential multiplication (×) serves as the furnace and forge, the Primordial Source, the origin and wellspring of all things.

In mythology once again, this is the creator goddess whose body and womb give birth to the Cosmos, the creator god whose breath and word call it into existence. In science, it is the Singularity that broke open to form our universe fourteen billion years ago, and continues to break open in a New Genesis even now.

*Click*

Clarity and Brilliance

The “clarity” of a diamond refers to the absence of defects, of imperfections that would otherwise obscure its transparency to light. At higher degrees of clarity a diamond will take on a “brilliance” where the magnification of light through its various facets has the effect of shining or generating a radiance from its own interior depths. Clarity is how deep into the diamond we can see, while its brilliance refers to the intensity of light it emits.

In this post I will use the attributes of clarity and brilliance in speaking of human consciousness. In other posts I have explored the distinct threads of intelligence, which are now recognized as our rational intelligence (RQ, previously IQ), our emotional intelligence (EQ, central to Social Emotional Learning or SEL), our visceral intelligence (VQ, mostly unconscious and responsible for regulating our body’s internal state and general health), and our spiritual intelligence (SQ, grounding us in Being and seeking unity with all beings).

All together, they comprise our Quadratic Intelligence, a dynamic braid of distinct threads (RQ, EQ, VQ and SQ) working together and constituting the holistic system of human consciousness.

When I first conceptualized this idea of our quadratic intelligence, I didn’t directly correlate them with the classical faculties of consciousness as developed in the Western (Greco-European) tradition: the mind (aka Intellect and Reason), the heart, and the will. It seemed obvious to me that the mind and rational intelligence are equivalent, as are the heart and emotional intelligence. The thread or strand of visceral intelligence was something of an outlier, and the will didn’t really seem to have a correlate in the quadratic system.

Only recently have I come to realize that our visceral intelligence and the classical faculty of the will make an equivalency of their own. The breakthrough happened as I was meditating on the rather obvious fact that everything going on inside my body – at the genetic, molecular, cellular, glandular, organ and organ system levels – are various kinds of action; and not just mechanical events, but actions that demonstrate inner aims, goal orientation, and intentionality.

For the longest time, Western science resisted – often dogmatically – the idea of purpose in nature and natural events.

This was likely because the Western imperial religion of Christianity had identified purpose with a transcendent deity whose will and plan determine the destiny of all things. (Instead, science eventually came to its own form of determinism, in the blind mechanics of matter. No external will or higher purpose was needed.)

This also can explain why the will has been relegated to the background in modern theories of psychology and psychotherapy. It gets a nod in the term “behavioral,” as in cognitive behavioral therapy, but is still considered an accessory to cognition and the faculty of the mind.

Today many scientists, especially biological scientists, are reconsidering the idea of purpose in nature, specifically in living processes. We don’t have to posit the existence of some extrinsic “director” to speak meaningfully of the adrenal gland’s action, for example, as “having the aim” of causing an excitatory response in the organs and muscles of the body “so that” it can manage a particularly stressful situation.

Now that science has shown definitively that intelligence is not above and outside of nature, but has instead evolved with nature and informs it from within, the association of intelligence with intentionality and purpose is opening new pathways of research.

At any rate, my realization that physiological events are not blindly mechanical but actions with purpose helped me draw the equation between the faculty of the will and the visceral intelligence of our body. What begins at unconscious levels (genes, cells, glands, organs and organ systems) gradually becomes conscious, then deliberate, and finally creative: the “will to live” (Schopenhauer), the “will to power” (Nietzsche), the “will to believe” (James) and the “will to meaning” (Frankl).

Whether conscious or unconscious, egoic or purely organic, all such actions should be associated with the will.

This equation represented an integral insight for me, bringing together in a single coherent model of human consciousness the functions and faculties of mind (rational intelligence, RQ), heart (emotional intelligence, EQ), and will (visceral intelligence, VQ), as well as our spiritual intelligence (SQ) in its introverted and extraverted, esoteric and ecstatic, peaceful and joyful, contemplative and transpersonal, grounded and communal modes, known widely across the cultures as soul and spirit.

Circling back to where we began, we can now place soul and spirit on the vertical axis of my “diamond” model of human consciousness. Soul is associated with the inner depths, essence, and grounding mystery of consciousness itself; while spirit is associated with its outer expression, radiance, and transpersonal outreach. Soul is within me; spirit is among us, in the sense that it moves through us to one another and unites us together in the higher wholeness of community (“together as one”).

We should properly speak of “my soul” but “our spirit” – or even better, the Spirit of unity, the Spirit of wholeness, or following another derivation of the root-word for whole, the Holy Spirit, where the uppercase ‘S’ indicates a move beyond the individual to the communal (transpersonal and holistic) level.

At the beginning of this post I spoke of “clarity” as the transparency that allows us to see into a diamond’s interior, and of “brilliance” as the magnified effect of light radiating from its center to our eyes. To complete the transfer of this analogy to human consciousness, all we need is to identify the diamond’s facets with our three faculties of mind, heart, and will.

Clarity, then, is the relative degree in which each facet is transparent to the depth, essence, or soul, of consciousness. And brilliance is the corresponding degree of radiance, or spirit, by which consciousness shines through its three faculties and engages with the larger Reality beyond ourselves.

This is all very interesting until we observe the extent to which our faculties can so quickly get clouded with their characteristic imperfections: the mind caught in its convictions, the heart bound by its attachments, and the will trapped by its ambitions. (The prefix ambi- refers to the conflicting drives of craving and fear, of wanting something so desperately but paralyzed by the prospect of not getting it, or of losing it if we should manage to track it down).

That’s when things get really interesting …

Life in Balance

Do you know why anxiety and depression are so prevalent in our day? Why more and more drugs are being invented (or repurposed) for their treatment – with an efficacy hardly better than the placebo effect? Why, despite multi-billions of dollars spent each year on research and treatment, and on the side-effects of that treatment, the problem just keeps getting worse?

I think I know why.

The first thing to understand is that anxiety and depression are not really separate disorders, but are instead the polar dynamics of a bi-polar complex. Sigmund Freud observed this a hundred years ago and named the disorder neurasthenia, nervous exhaustion. Anxiety is the “nervous” part of the pattern, where insecurity or a generalized fear in the nervous system causes muscle tension, elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, an over production of stress hormones, hyper-reactivity and worried thoughts.

This squeeze-down on the body and mind demands a huge amount of energy and cannot go on indefinitely. At some point we run out of energy and become “exhausted.” Our body’s muscles, glands, and organs get depleted; our mind loses interest in the world around us and sinks into gloom and dark thoughts of suicide.

Eventually, and mercifully, our autonomic system puts us to sleep so we can recharge and return to our worried life in the morning. Round and round, back and forth, up and down, again and again.

Now, that’s still just a description of what’s happening. An explanation of why it happens, why more and more of us are stuck on this Wheel of Suffering, needs to go beyond symptoms and its bipolar pattern. The above “Z diagram” offers a perspective.

In the middle of everything is our ego, the self-conscious actor whose identity is gradually given shape as we take on roles and play our part in the role plays of social life. According to the psychology of social constructivism, the independent status of our actor-self and the belief that it is (“I am”) separate from the roles we play is a delusion based on the conditioned habit of social performance.

That is to say, the consciousness that inhabits the roles we play becomes conscious of itself (i.e., self-conscious) as “the one who” is performing them. This delusion is evident in the way our self-consciousness is identified with and filtered through our various social roles, present and past – significantly through those associated with the emotional complex called our Inner Child.

Ego is thus a social construction project which, by the mediation of the various identities (roles) we inhabit, relates us outwardly to another and inwardly, or subjectively, to our self. The injunction of “love your neighbor as yourself” is only possible to the degree that our ego is both securely centered and compassionately connected.

A centered self is the power line of identity, while our connection to another is the love line that supports a healthy relationship.

We can sum up this part of the explanation of why we are chronically anxious and depressed by pointing out that ego security is managed in the balance of power (within oneself) and love (toward another). When we lose (or failed to establish) our center, what could have provided the access point to an inward-descending path of consciousness to the deeper oneness or ground of being within ourselves is missing and we have no peace.

Instead, we are anxious and use our already compromised power to manipulate and control what we mistakenly believe is making us anxious.

Quite often this turns out to be other people.

The outcome of our controlling efforts, however, is predictably attachment, entanglement, codependency, hostility, conflict and estrangement – not genuine love, in other words. And the problem here is that a healthy and compassionate connection with another (and others generally) is our access point to an outward-ascending path of consciousness to the higher wholeness that includes us in community, where true joy is found.

Our inability to go beyond (transcend) ourselves, due to our being tangled up and tied down in neurotic attachments, leaves us depressed, the spiritual opposite and absence of joy.

So my explanation of why anxiety and depression are increasing in rate, scope, and severity in our day is that we are blocked from the descending path to peace and from the ascending path to joy.

This is because we are unable to balance power and love in our lives, which itself can be traced to ego insecurity and its compensatory strategies of taking control where control isn’t natural, necessary, or productive. In fact, it is counterproductive and ultimately destructive of our health and wellbeing, our happiness and hope, of harmonious relationships and genuine community.

If the solution isn’t about taking control, then what can we do?

The obvious answer is that we should get centered within ourselves and begin making healthy connections with others. If it’s true that our access to a deeper peace is “down” through our self-center, and that our access to a higher joy is “up” through our connection with another, then perhaps there are ways of re-centering and reconnecting that can open these pathways to inner peace and communal joy.

Well, yes, of course there are. This brings us back to the spiritual principles and practices that have been flowing like an underground stream beneath cultural history and the daily news for millenniums. This wisdom tradition, the perennial philosophy or Sophia Perennis, has served as both matrix and repository of timeless truths that have nourished us and can call us back in such times as today, when we have lost our balance.

American Spirit

If you believe, as I do, that the world around us is a construction of meaning for which we are at least partially responsible, then when the world appears to be reeling out of control, one place we should check for the cause is our own mental state. As both product and symptom of our mental condition, the world is perhaps the most revealing and reliable indication of what’s going on inside us.

Four virtues of what we can call “mental strength” are fortitude, equanimity, flexibility, and resilience. When these are compromised, we tend to become disengaged from reality and spiral into a neurotic state. Our perceptions get skewed, our judgment is impaired, and the beliefs that spin out are distorted, irrational, and untethered to empirical evidence and common sense.

As a consequence we become increasingly susceptible to conspiracy thinking and emotional extremes, as well as vulnerable to miscreants who seek to exploit our unstable and anxious state.

Assaults on our mental health generate experiences of anxiety, confusion, disorientation, and exhaustion. Confusion and disorientation can be distinguished in that confusion is difficulty making sense of something and organizing our thoughts, while disorientation is a compromised sense of where we are in the larger context or scheme of things. Along with anxiety and exhaustion, they are both examples of “mental disorder.”

Looking across the American national scene right now, the signs of mental disorder are all around us.

America is, after all, the shared world of our national experience for which each and all of us have some accountability. I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, you may protest. I have nothing to do with the current insanity among our politicians. Storming the Capitol and pushing democracy to the brink wasn’t my idea. No, of course not. And that’s not what I’m suggesting.

The loss of what I’m calling mental strength and our accelerating slide as a nation into mental disorder (anxiety, confusion, disorientation, and exhaustion) might be blamed on one or another politician, one or another demographic of the radical base. But that’s a coping tactic I want to challenge in this post. It won’t do any lasting good to pin blame and imprison the offenders. And it certainly won’t help if we just “let it ride” and hope for the best.

What is needed – especially in this critical eleventh hour of American democracy – is for more of us to cultivate the virtues of mental strength.

Fortitude

Of all the virtues, fortitude is the one with obvious associations to mental strength. From the Latin fortitūdō, it refers to strength, firmness, and courage, and is in our words fort, fortify, and fortification. Mental fortitude, then, is our ability to withstand stress, maintain our integrity, and remain grounded in the here and now. It doesn’t make us insensitive to what’s happening around us or less compassionate to the suffering of others.

In fact, engaging with reality from a grounded and centered mental state enables us to make a more accurate and realistic assessment of what’s going on, and to understand (note the grounding in that word) how we can be a creative influence in every situation. In terms of psychosomatic science, mental fortitude is a virtue of the energetic alignment of mind and body, of being mindfully present in our body, right where we always are.

Equanimity

Equanimity, an equalized or balanced mind, provides the inner calm we need to maintain our composure in difficult and stressful times. The mind-body alignment mentioned above serves as the vertical axis around which our thoughts, feelings, and emotions (feelings infused with the motivation to act: e-motion) can be held in balance. Otherwise, and without this balancing principle of equanimity, our thoughts can easily be hijacked, our feelings manipulated, and our motives exploited by those who would want to control us.

Terrorists of every kind gain their advantage by throwing us off-balance, making us feel disoriented in our fear, unable to think clearly, find our resources, and make a creative rather than a merely reactive response to the shock of their violence. American society could be diagnosed as suffering from national PTSD, chronically off our center and lurching from the latest threat or the merest hint of danger.

Politicians who are looking for a pathway to power just need to drop a few buzz-words and make a provocative reference to something we fear, and we are ready to hand them the keys.

Flexibility

Mental strength is not merely the ability to withstand stress and the countervailing forces of life. It also entails a capacity to move with and through those forces, just as a strong tree sways and bends in the wind without breaking. The opposite of mental flexibility is mental rigidity, where our concepts and beliefs have become frozen convictions that hold our mind prisoner, like a convict.

Dogmatic thinking, where the two sides of an issue cannot see anything but the absolute truth of their own positions, saturates our social media today. Politicians and preachers pump it out from their platforms and pulpits, as their constituents gulp it down without discernment. Mental rigidity paralyzes the critical and contextual thinking needed to make a clear assessment and find constructive solutions to the challenges we face.

Resilience

Our fourth virtue of mental strength is resilience, referring to the capacity to catch our balance, recover our integrity, and re-center ourselves in the aftermath of a stressful assault. If the opposite of flexibility is rigidity, the absence of resilience is fragility: we are easily injured and take a long time to heal – if we ever do. Instead, we put up defenses around our vulnerability in order to protect ourselves from the pain. But behind those high walls, our spirit cannot move or breathe and we fall into exhaustion.

The common term from psychotherapy for this condition of spiritual exhaustion is depression.

In characterizing depression as spiritual rather than merely emotional or cognitive-behavioral in its deeper dynamic, I am drawing a bold line of equivalency between mental strength and what might be called “spiritual fitness.” By this I don’t mean to imply that our challenge is supernatural or metaphysical in nature, that it has anything to do with what we believe about god or whether we believe in a god at all.

Our spirit is the power of life, creativity, freedom and joy that intends to flow through us and out to one another, into the world we construct and live in, and for the sake of the holy community we might one day become.

The Rebirth of a Nation

As I watch and listen to GOP politicians provide excuses and cover-up for Donald Trump and his conduct, the thought occurs to me that perhaps we are witnessing the labor pains of something to come. I don’t mean civil war or the fatal collapse of democracy, but something else. Something beautiful, something new, something the world very much needs and has long been waiting for.

Positioning Trump in the stage lights of our national attention is exposing his vices, ambitions, and aggressive self-interest like never before. I mean, we’ve known these things about him for some time, even as he was coming up the ladder of capitalism – or I should say, as he was stepping on the heads of taxpaying citizens, exploiting workers, and jilting investors, building a brand associated with excessive wealth and enormous debt. The American Dream.

In a way like nobody else, Donald Trump embodies and represents what can be called the demonic energies of capitalism – its greed, excess, exploitation, insatiable craving, zero-sum competition, glory-seeking, and conspicuous consumption.

By definition, and drawing on the deep heritage of cultural mythology, demonic energies are committed to breaking things down, pulling them apart, putting them at odds, taking possession and destroying them from within. They are “against the gods” to the degree that divine energies are intent on bringing things together, healing what is broken, making whole, and setting the captives free.

So here’s what I’m wondering. What if Donald Trump is functioning as an archetype of the “latent demonic” in our collective national psyche, of the aggressive and self-interested impulses that drive capitalism, alongside and intermixed with its creative dynamism of innovation, wealth generation, progress, and competitive excellence?

For a while, perhaps, these “godly” virtues (as they were acclaimed in the emerging Western European and New World “Protestant ethic”) kept the “demonic” vices in check – or at least enough in check to inspire a vision of individual prosperity and communal wellbeing (the American Dream).

Depending on whether you are White, Anglo-Saxon, or Protestant, this arrangement has worked fairly well. On the other hand, if you are Black or Brown, indigenous or immigrant, of some other religious affiliation or none, another species or the planetary ecosystem as a whole, the so-called American Dream has been more like a nightmare.

Capitalism runs amok as its demonic elements begin to rise and break apart the moral agreements, ethical priorities, and human empathy that unite body and soul, self and other, human and nature in healthy, life-affirming ways.

On this reading, all the weird antics and violence baiting of “Trumplicans” can be seen as the convulsions of a kind of national exorcism – or to put it more positively, as the laboring contractions of a new birth. Trump personifies in a blatant, overbearing, and offensive way energies in ourselves that we have accommodated for some time, with occasional guilt but generally without apology, believing they were necessary to the fulfillment of our material ambitions and national destiny. He is exposing what has been, and still is to some degree, inside each of us and all of us as a nation.

Now we’re waking up to a reality that is planetary, global, multicultural, and diverse in many more ways. It’s time for our divine energies to be ascendant, what Abraham Lincoln named our “better angels”: respect, compassion, kindness, accord, goodwill, and fidelity to what brings and binds us together in charity and service. We are realizing, finally, that our American Dream has been alienating and oppressive to so many outside our boundaries and under our boots. (And to be honest, its pursuit hasn’t done much to make us happier or healthier, either.)

A “prophesy” based on this reading of current events might anticipate the professional failure of Trumplican politicians who are falling over each other to marry their own ambitions to their fear of a base that is poised with guns in hand to “take back” the country they never really had, that never really was. Trump will be indicted, maybe imprisoned, or at least prevented from ever running for public office again. There is likely to be more violence – more squeezing pain as a new and brighter future is delivered into reality.

The insecure, angry, and disillusioned base will continue to nurse their grudges and throw occasional ‘tantrumps’, but the larger culture will no longer be afraid of them, just as adults are not (or shouldn’t be) intimidated by toddlers.

Now, just in case there are Republican readers who have taken offense at my words, I ask you to consider the extent in which you may have abandoned the political philosophy of your party for a charismatic personality, deep democratic principles for aggressive self-interest, a Christian ethic of universal and unconditional love for expedient measures of extortion, deception, and violence against those who don’t agree with you or are different from you. Especially if you claim to follow the “Jesus Way,” these are all profoundly contrary to a Christian ethic of compassion, full inclusion, and redemptive community.

Back in 2016, as Donald Trump was shaming and slamming his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination, I floated the idea that he wasn’t in fact representing the Republican party, but was instead an almost messianic (now as I see him, archetypal) figure of capitalism – with some xenophobia, misogyny, aporophobia (fear of poverty and the poor) and White Supremacy thrown into the mix.

As the Republican party began to tolerate, accept, endorse, embrace, and finally submit itself to his influence, I warned that it was (not so) slowly but surely losing its soul. When individual self-interest eclipses communal wellbeing, when personal wealth takes precedence to the commonwealth, and when ego ambition not only out-competes altruism in the short game but lambasts it as a weak and lazy form of socialism – that’s when capitalism wins over democracy.

True Republicans need to stand up and speak out against their Trumplican hijackers, professing the core values and high ideals of American democracy. Our two-party system needs sane, rational, grounded, and compassionate Republicans at the table, in the chambers, and on the streets.

So what am I saying, exactly? That we need to reject Donald Trump and punish his minions, get them off the political stage and into jail cells where they belong? Not quite. Or not only that. What needs to happen first – the necessary and critical threshold-crossing act that will help us move as a nation into the next stage in our transformation – is for each of us to choose a life together, for each other, and all together: a more perfect union.

Checking In

“Hello, my name is Simon, and I like to do draw-rings.”

It’s one of my favorite skits of Mike Meyers on Saturday Night Live. I like to do draw-rings, too, as my returning reader will attest. Sometimes just a seemingly minor tweak of a diagram can part the veil and show me something I hadn’t noticed or thought about before. Our brains are set up to grasp information by a vision-logic that allows us to analyze, rearrange, combine, and transform images on our mental desktop.

So, in that spirit (or with that excuse) I offer the diagram above. At the center are what I have come to name our three “mental locations” of consciousness, each one providing a distinctive center of engagement with reality – or as we will see, with at least a semblance of reality. Let’s take a closer look at the mental locations of “body” and “soul,” and then give some quality time to considering “ego” and its marvelous complications.

Because body and soul are separated to either side by the realm of ego, you might assume they are divided in reality. But that would be a first – and in fact, the most deceptive – example of what I just called a semblance of reality, or what Eastern traditions call an illusion. Accepting an illusion as reality is known as delusion; we’ll come back to that a bit later.

For now, just know that body and soul are not actually (i.e., in reality) divided or opposed, but comprise your essential nature as a human being, a manifestation of reality (being) in human form.

As a mental location and center of consciousness, your (human) body is generated and sustained within a complex system of material forces known as the Web of Life. This includes not only the subsystems of your living body itself, but a nested hierarchy of elements, compounds, other organisms, symbion partnerships, planetary ecosystems, our own solar system, distant star clusters, and the farther flung galaxies that are all together the universe we barely know.

Every bit of it is linked through all of it to every other bit of it. It’s all an interconnected, interdependent, magnificent whole. And you belong to it.

If, as science tells us, this whole magnificent universe exploded, emerged, and expanded from some kind of quantum singularity nearly fourteen billion years ago, the most evident truth we can draw from this fact is that you are to the universe as a wave is to the ocean.

In and through your human body you take what you need from the Web of Life to survive, grow, and thrive as a living organism. Your body transforms this supply into its own structure and functions, releasing and giving back to the Web its metabolic byproducts and creative products, its wake of behavioral consequences and, in the end, its own flesh and blood for the generation of new forms and more vibrant lines of life.

If you could engage reality from the mental location of your body, you would “sense and know” it as One. And knowing that “what we do to the Web, we do to ourselves” (Chief Seattle), it’s possible that your lifestyle and consumer choices would be different from what they are now.

Let me get off that soapbox and direct your attention to the other center of experience in your essential nature, the mental location of soul. Think of these two together as the extroverted and introverted orientations, respectively, of consciousness: the body with its senses reaching out to the Web of Life; and the soul, by its “sixth sense” of intuition, reaching inward to the Ground of Being.

Just as the Web includes everything that exists, the Ground is also “what is,” but deep down inside, to the esse or Being manifesting in and as all those countless beings – human beings, fish beings, bird beings, cloud beings, and star beings. If we’re not careful, the metaphor can tempt us to think of this Ground as something (i.e., some thing) underneath us, having its own reality apart from everything else. But it is not some thing, not a being, but being-itself: the power of reality (again, the be-ing) in every thing that is.

Even though, from the vantage point or mental location of soul you can access the truth of essential oneness (all existence as a manifestation of the Ground), your five somatic senses register a manifold of beings, attributes, qualities, and patterns. To the degree that body and soul are properly aligned and in communion, this poses no cognitive conflict since your experience is of a reality that is both an underlying oneness and an overarching wholeness, an inner ocean of quiet mystery and an outward manifestation of rolling currents and dancing waves.

The cognitive conflict or dissonance enters our picture with the introduction of a third mental location of consciousness: the exceptional, conceited, and notorious ego.

In contrast to the body and soul, which together constitute your essential nature as a human (manifestation of) being, ego only comes to awareness inside a construct of identity and meaning. Who you are, that is to say, isn’t what you were born as, but an identity that gradually came together over many years of social instruction and stage performance, in the role plays of family, peer group, tribe, and your larger culture.

Ego is simultaneously defined by a Myth of Identity and confined to a House of Meaning. These are the narrative composition of who you are and the narrative context where your identity has recognition value. Both identity and meaning are constructions: the House of Meaning (aka your personal “world”) contextualizes or provides the social-semantic theater where your Myth of Identity is acted out for validation by those around you.

You can spend an entire lifetime trying to validate your Myth of Identity and manage your House of Meaning. Indeed, the majority of human beings – confused, obsessed, and misdirected by their egos – do exactly that.

In my diagram I have placed two tightening spirals to symbolize this tendency of ego consciousness to get wrapped into the business of fitting in and standing out, making something of yourself and then struggling to hold it all together, chasing happiness and trying to outrun The Reaper.

It doesn’t help when your culture, which should be a provident resource and guide to your “hero journey,” is just as lost and confused as you are. This is exactly when that underground stream of timeless wisdom ought to be accessed, assimilated, and directed into ‘new’ mystical sensibilities and ‘fresh’ ethical aspirations of a liberated life.

All you need to do is drop the myth of who you are and simply be your true self. Then venture out of your house into the real world where All is One, Everything is Connected, and We’re all in it Together.

Hero’s Journey

Let’s get “mythological” for a few minutes.

You are the hero on a journey to find your true self. (Why you would have to go anywhere to find your true self is not something you pause to really think about.) On the way, you enter a bazaar where all kinds of costumes are available for you to try on, with the promise that perhaps one style in particular will reveal your true identity. But which one?

You quickly learn that these various costumes, uniforms, and outfits are associated with larger social settings, some more formal, some less so, but each one serving to identify you as a character in a role play. It also becomes obvious to you that your performance in any given role play successfully secures, or otherwise puts at risk, your status and reputation among others in the cast.

The better you are at playing a role and being the character they expect you to be, the stronger your compensation in the form of social approval and reward.

It’s not long before you come to understand that there are some aspects of your natural temperament, as well as talents and interests you naturally possess, which are incompatible with certain costumes and clearly not permitted on stage.

Because you value the recognition you receive when you perform a role as written, you submit to this morality of compliance by leaving those parts of yourself off stage and behind the curtain. In some cases, you have to work hard to keep them hidden, but the threat of losing your part in the play, of losing your identity and becoming a nobody, is enough to justify pushing some of your natural light into the shadow and out of sight.

When young Anakin Skywalker of the Star Wars saga eventually became dependent on his Suit to hold him together and keep him alive, the tragic loss of his true self was nearly complete. Joseph Campbell regarded this character arc as a particularly powerful depiction of what can happen when a hero’s true humanity is denied and abandoned in pursuit of social identity.

I think it was in The Return of the Jedi when [Luke] Skywalker unmasks his father [Anakin]. The father had been playing one of these machine roles, a state role. He was the uniform, you know? And [with] the removal of that mask, there was an undeveloped man there; there was a kind of worm. By being [the] executive of a system, one is not developing one’s humanity. I think that George Lucas really, really did a beautiful thing there.

joseph campbell and The Power of myth, episode 2: “the message of the myth”

The great lesson of that moment in the story, or rather the great question is, How much of your true self have you abandoned or suppressed in order to fit into a Suit and be somebody others accept and approve? Anakin’s journey was redemptive in the end, as he “returned” to his humanity in the final moments of his life. Not every hero’s journey has a happy ending, however, with too many dying inside identities they mistakenly believe will save them from a lonely life of anonymity.

While all that drama, of pushing your natural light off stage and playing out an identity that others and the larger society want you to be, is exhausting – unnerving, crazy-making, frustrating, disappointing, and ultimately not fulfilling – it may come as a surprise to learn that your liberation from suffering is possible now. Right now. Not up ahead or later on, but this moment.

Something is required of you, however, which means that any doubt, hesitation, or resistance on your part will only delay your salvation – the “return” to your true self and full humanity.

What must you do? Surrender the Suit, take off the identity, and step out of character. (Be prepared, for others on stage will not be happy with you.) Exit the stage and descend by a back stairway into the nether-realm of your Shadow, where those banished and forgotten powers are locked away.

While mythology often depicts the Shadow as a menacing and diabolical force, this only proves the psychospiritual principle which states that the power of darkness (or the Dark Side) is in direct and equal measure to your passion in suppressing the light you believe makes you unacceptable to others. Your Shadow is the No! that hides and holds your light.

Now, without the trance of orthodoxy calling down to the stage and directing the action, telling you how you should act and what you should believe and how you should feel, you can finally take back your light and become whole again.

This is the moment of conversion (Greek metanoia, or “new mind”), where the veil parts and the hero, who had been in pursuit of a far-off treasure, realizes that it has been in their possession all along. A divided consciousness, split by a hanging partition of ignorance, conviction, and amnesia, gives way at last to a unified vision.

Liberated now from the self-destructive tension between the Suit and the Shadow, you can be fully present to what’s real, to the present mystery of Reality. A fully embodied experience opens a descending path to the quiet inner life of your Soul, where “human” relaxes in communion with “being.” Because you have been chasing along the horizontal axis of time for so long, this 90° shift in awareness will at first feel awkward and difficult to sustain.

As with everything else in life, though, consistent practice will strengthen this meditative skill and it won’t be long before getting grounded and staying present are effortless.

Ascending along this same axis of a vertical (or unified) vision brings you into the transpersonal realm of spiritual community, where you and everything else are co-participants in a higher wholeness. In contrast to the descending path, which entailed a gradual release of your unique center of identity to an ineffable experience of “no-self,” this ascending path involves a gathering up into yourself of what you have to offer the greater harmony of beings. Just as with breathing (the Latin spiritus means breath), your Spirit joins the conspiracy (breathing together) of a universal fellowship.

Self-transcendence (leaping out), then, is your way up to community; self-surrender (letting go) is your way down to the ground.

The mythological archetype of the Hero’s Journey, of your great adventure in search of true self, was designed to help you wake up to your life, take back your light, and become whole again.

Perhaps it’s time to take that mask off.

Fetal Personhood?

In State legislatures, courtrooms, college dorms and dive bars across the country people are debating whether a human fetus should be considered a person, and therefore respected as possessing an unalienable right to life. Proponents of the idea want to push this identity of a person as far back in time as possible, through embryonic stages and even to the moment of conception.

You might wonder what such a recognition of personhood in a human fetus is intended to accomplish.

We’ll look deeper into the definition of “person” and “personhood” in a bit, but at least for now we should assume that the reason has to do with the philosophical conception of a person as someone who is protected under the Law from murder, injury, abuse, bondage, theft, or discrimination.

From a purely biological point of view, this claim could be made on behalf of a human fetus simply because it is a human fetus and not some other animal species. It is “on the way,” as it were, to becoming a fully formed human, not a fish or a horse.

This has in fact been a foundational argument against abortion for many decades, situated in a value context of religious beliefs that has even motivated a defense against contraception, since it too interferes with god’s design for the reproduction and flourishing of life.

So, given this historical background, why would anyone believe it necessary to award personhood to an already dignified and presumably sacred human being? Perhaps it has to do with the statistically evident fact that children, the poor, minority groups, and women throughout our nation’s history have been abused, exploited, and oppressed – even though they too are presumably human beings and made in god’s image.

If being human isn’t sufficient to warrant protection under the Law, then perhaps adding this designation of person and personhood will do the trick.

The hypocrisy of defending a fetus’ right to life, but then doing nothing to provide children the protection, healthcare, education and empowerment they need to thrive in society, explodes its defense as utterly lacking integrity and ethical vision. Calling a fetus a “person” does nothing to address how we treat persons on the postpartum side of the line. Indeed, given our record on this side, assigning personhood to a fetus might very well have an opposite effect from what these apologists and legislators are pushing for.

But there’s something else. The anti-abortion movement, consisting mainly of conservative evangelicals but supported by some liberal humanists as well, is exposing its lack of understanding when it comes to what makes someone a person and in possession of personhood.

If they persist in their efforts, their cause will only amplify the confusion and eventually fall apart into noisy nonsense.

By definition – and this is always a good place to begin – “person” (along with its cognates personal, personality, and personhood) refers to a fictional character played, or personified, by a stage actor back in Greek and Roman times. The actor would dress the part, take his or her place on the stage, and speak their lines through a mask equipped with a fluted opening at the mouth, from which our term per- (through) sona (speak) derives.

During the theatrical performance, this fictional character would come alive by the animating talent of the actor, engaging with other personae in various settings and delivering to the audience a convincing dramatic rendition.

A person, then, is a narrative convention, not a natural (or even supernatural) entity. Additionally, a person, this mask of identity, has no life apart from the actor, or ego, who puts it on and animates the character. The mask, as it were, is a mediating symbol between the actor who plays the part and the character who comes to life on stage. The psychologist Carl Jung regarded the persona and its personality as a transactional complex of psychosocial identity that is constructed in the crucible of our family and tribal systems.

We can think of it as the costume that culture puts over nature, in order to channel its energies into the great and small stories that give us purpose and make our lives meaningful.

And then there’s the ego itself, which is the actor who puts on, pretends to be, and plays out the identity of a character. Society is its theater, the wide variety of social settings are its performance stage, and social interactions themselves are the role plays where identity is defined and developed.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that ego only wakes up to its own existence inside these character roles and masks of identity. Apart from them – and certainly prior to their introduction in the process of socialization – there is no ego, no “I” without a persona, no actor before there is someone to act as and act out to others.

It is only in the second year of life (postpartum) that a child has acquired enough language to appreciate the fictional characters in story, and sufficient imagination to begin pretending and inhabiting those and other roles of identity. Developmentally speaking, before this ignition of linguistic intelligence, they are neither a person, in possession of personhood, nor yet have the capacity to engage the world from a self-conscious center of personal identity.

It is simply a category mistake of the first order to assign personhood to a fetus. To do so is confused and confusing. Chasing such an argument to its logical conclusion will effectively abort the conviction that its proponents are trying so desperately to deliver.

Whole-Brain Education

The education system today directs almost all of its attention and resources to the brain’s left hemisphere. More specifically to the areas in the left hemisphere that contribute to logical and analytical problem solving – competencies at the forefront of science, technology, engineering and math (the STEM disciplines).

It’s these functions that will continue to be taken over by computers and robots, eventually leaving the heroic left hemisphere all alone in the back alley of cultural progress.

Actually, students have been feeling this way for generations now. They are expected to show up to class, soak in the information, give it back on tests, and ride the escalator to graduation. By that time they will have forgotten most of it, feeling cheated out of the best years of their lives.

You might wonder what education would be like, were it to dedicate attention and resources to the whole brain. It wouldn’t ignore or downplay left-hemisphere virtues, but so much more of the picture would be included: Its quirky, creative neighbor to the right. The constant activity in the limbic apartment below. And the mysterious noises sounding up from deep in the basement.

Of course I am using an analogy here, but the image of a multilevel apartment building is helpful when considering what ‘whole-brain’ education would look like.

Let’s begin where the focus is currently, but expand our frame to include both hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. The brain’s evolution entailed an important differentiation that located specialized nuclei and networks in particular lobes, with the two hemispheres playing complementary roles in the higher-order processing known as critical and contextual reasoning (CCR).

Critical is derived from the root meaning “to cut,” and it is a left-hemisphere specialty to cut and break things down into their elements, analyzing wholes into their component parts.

Given this predilection of the left hemisphere for critical reasoning, we can also see how the education system itself, at least in Western and developed countries, is a product of breaking student populations into levels (primary, elementary, secondary, post-secondary, graduate, doctorate), each level into grades or years, each grade into subjects and courses, and each course into sections, assignments, and assessments.

It all makes perfect sense – to the left hemisphere.

But students often get lost in the mix, stuck and disoriented, unclear about why it’s necessary and where it’s all heading. The conventional answer to that last question is to get a job, where they will likely work in a department, in a skill caste, on a team, doing things that somehow add up to meaningful wholes – but that frequently remains an elusive goal.

What’s missing is a contextual understanding of how things connect and comprise larger patterns and realities. This would be the right hemisphere’s contribution, were it invited to the conversation.

Critical and contextual reasoning keeps the bigger picture in view (or the ideal in mind) as the pieces are analyzed, defined, manipulated and mastered along the way.

This optimal balance of the brain hemispheres is about much more than equal contributions, however. The right hemisphere and its contextual reasoning actually has deeper affiliations than the left with the brain’s limbic system – that downstairs apartment where strange, non-rational things are always going on.

An evolutionarily older network of nuclei than those higher-order processes transpiring upstairs, the limbic system is where intuitive information from the body’s interior and sensory information from its external environment are synced up to produce behavioral responses that are situationally adaptive.

A perceived threat in the environment, for example, will “call up” a fear response in the body and motivate us away from the danger in order to avoid injury or death – which is obviously adaptive.

The limbic or “old mammalian” brain is constantly monitoring and adjusting this alignment of our internal state and external conditions, opening attention to the settings and situations in which we find ourselves. Here is the primitive foundation to what will later evolve into the right hemisphere’s talent for contextual reasoning, adding its own complexity and sophistication, along with a much broader and more versatile emotional repertoire.

This same affective versatility is what supports social and emotional learning (SEL).

The education system largely ignores the social and emotional intelligence of students – until, that is, it breaks out of line and disrupts the fixed routines of instruction. As a consequence, students are not only disoriented without a contextual understanding of what’s going on (right hemisphere deficit), but they don’t know how to connect and relate to their teachers, to each other, and to the curriculum in ways that could arouse interest and promote genuine learning (limbic deficit).

If students can’t and are not supported in learning how to show empathy, build rapport, get along and work together, the higher-order challenge of developing contextual reasoning will be inherently compromised.

A whole-brain model for education is not yet fully in view, for there remains the basement of our apartment building to consider. Beneath the cortex and limbic system and functioning as the boiler room for the entire complex is the brainstem, with its primal responsibility of regulating the vital functions of the body. Running alongside and up from the deep interior of the body, kundalini-link, is the vagus nerve, which serves a crucial role in “tuning” the nervous system.

When we take some deep breaths, roll our shoulders and relax, we are adjusting the vagal tone of our nervous system. Pushing our chair away from a desk full of deadlines, taking a break and going outside for a walk, even the purely mental exercise of telling ourselves it’s not the end of the world or that we did it once so we can do it again – all of these are proven effective practices for adjusting vagal tone and regulating our internal state. They belong to the category of vagal tone regulation (VTR) strategies, which you might guess are foundational skills of life, learning, maturity, and a general sense of wellbeing.

But the education system doesn’t waste time on them, either. What does the body’s nervous state have to do with academic performance and student success? Everything!

If students don’t know how (because it hasn’t been modeled or intentionally taught) to access, monitor, adjust, and regulate their nervous systems, then the natural limbic response of anxiety before a high-stakes exam will degrade the higher functions of mental focus, accurate recall, contextual and critical reasoning, resulting in performance outcomes that do not reflect their true intelligence, knowledge, desire to learn, or dedication to study.

We have learned enough about the human brain, that it’s time for an overhaul of our education system. Instead of fixating on the admittedly important skills of critical reasoning, how about we deliberately and systematically include the equally important skills of contextual reasoning, social and emotional learning, and helping students more effectively manage the stress of learning and life?

We have everything we need now to change the game – at last and for good.