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Breaking Free

At this very moment your nervous system is idling at a frequency that registers your confidence in reality as provident to your basic needs to live, to belong, and to be loved. It isn’t something you have to make a decision over or even think very much about.

As far as thinking is concerned, it is preconscious, serving as the filter which determines much of what gets your attention and holds your interest.

The history of this, what we might call your existential confidence or trust in reality, reaches all the way back to the time you were in your mother’s womb, through your birth experience, and into the first days and weeks of your life as an infant. Even though your existence wasn’t absolutely secure in an objective sense, your internal feeling of being supported and cared for allowed your nervous system to relax – for the most part.

But you know what? Your taller powers weren’t perfect, and they couldn’t show up promptly every time your needs announced themselves. The cumulative effect of delays, shortfalls, mistakes, and oversights on their part caused your nervous system to become a bit more vigilant and reactive. If gross neglect, abuse, and general bad parenting were also factors, the consequence on your nervous system was that much more severe.

In addition to decreasing your tolerance threshold, this external insecurity motivated you to reach out a little sooner, grip down a little harder, and hold on a little longer to whatever could make you feel secure.

In this way, insecurity generated attachment, which in turn served to pacify the dis-ease in your nervous system.

Attachment refers both to an emotional-behavioral strategy that seeks to resolve internal insecurity and to the external object used to mediate this resolution – what I call a pacifier. A pacifier is what you can’t feel secure without, but which is inherently incapable of satisfying your deeper needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

We’ve switched to the present tense to make the point that although your demand for pacifiers was established very early, throughout your life and still today you turn to certain things – objects and people, food and drink, ideas and beliefs – to help you calm down and feel less anxious.

Over time all these various pacifiers got incorporated into your developing sense of identity by a process known as entanglement. Your craving for a pacifier wasn’t optional, nor were you free to refuse its sedative effect. You can think of attachment as the combined strategy-and-fixation on some specific pacifier, while entanglement hooks and ties the attachment object into your very sense of self.

You become convinced that you can’t be happy without the pacifier, that you cannot function in its absence, and that without it you might even die.

As depicted in the diagram above, attachment ramifies (or branches out) into the self-world construct of your identity, which in turn ratifies (or locks in) the pacifier as a critical piece to your life and its meaning. The construction of your world thus contains and is largely built around the things that help you feel secure and will hopefully satisfy your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

But is this world of yours and the identity supported inside it really real? That’s an important question, since every human construction of meaning is a mental artifact that may have little or no basis in reality. Your idea of a rose, for instance, is not itself the rose. One is a mental artifact and the other is an actual fact. In this case, your idea of a rose has a definite anchor in objective reality, but the idea itself is only in your mind.

Some mental artifacts have no anchor in actual fact, such as religion’s concept of god. This doesn’t necessarily falsify the construct, since many such concepts are acknowledged as metaphors of experiences that elude objective representation. They may not represent real facts, but they are nevertheless reality-oriented in the way they reveal, express, or clarify an experience of reality.

If the insecurity, attachment, and entanglement are strong enough, your self-and-world construct might be profoundly delusional, making it impossible for you to discriminate between what you believe and what is real. The delusion thus serves to justify (or make right) your entanglement by providing you with all the reasons you need to defend and promote it on others.

It is under the spell of delusion that humans have wreaked all kinds of destruction, terror, and death on each other throughout our history.

In my diagram I have depicted your (partly delusional) worldview as a three-dimensional sphere enclosing black and white blocks. The sphere itself represents the more-or-less coherent collection of ideas that carries your current understanding of things, while the black and white blocks depict emotionally charged convictions, especially around your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

Ideas farther out toward the periphery are things you can negotiate, modify, and even abandon for better ones if necessary. But those convictions deeper in are nonnegotiable absolute claims that simply must be true for the whole thing to hold together.

If you are like most people, open dialogue around these claims is not only impossible, it’s simply not necessary since the one and only truth is already in your possession.

It is understandable if you find offense in my suggestion that you are living under the spell of delusion. Other people may be spellbound and out of touch with reality, but not you! I feel the same way. How I see things is the way things really are. There is no discrepancy between what I believe and what is real. There is no distortion in my representation, no self-serving bias in my personal worldview.

When you hear me say it, it sounds rather presumptuous, does it not? The truth is, our personal (and cultural) constructs of meaning will always fall short of reality, if only because they are mental artifacts and not really real. And given that each of us has arranged our world in some degree to compensate for the insecurity we once felt (and maybe still feel), our worldview not only falls short of reality but actually distorts it or ‘makes believe’ in the interest of helping us feel better.


The spiritual wisdom traditions are unanimous in their diagnosis of our present condition as enthralled by delusion, along with a deep-cutting ethical admonishment against our readiness to kill and die for things (our absolute truths) that are merely in our minds. Our only way forward according to them is by breaking the spell and waking up, which amounts to running the delusional process in reverse.

First, acknowledge that your ideas and beliefs are not (exactly) the way things really are. The idea of a rose is not the rose itself. This step is crucial in moving you out of delusion and into a position where you can begin to see the illusory nature of all mental constructs.

Next, perform a comprehensive inventory of your worldview and pay close attention to those beliefs that lack a strong reality orientation or empirical basis. Some beliefs only make sense because other beliefs are taken as true. But what makes those other beliefs true?

As you analyze your web of beliefs, it will become increasingly apparent that its persuasive character is more due to this cross-referencing bootstrap dynamic than to any foundation in direct experience. This is just another name for entanglement, only now you’re looking at it from above rather than from below.

Now try to isolate the lines of attachment that anchor your strongest beliefs. Keeping in mind that attachment is an emotional-behavioral strategy which fixates on specific pacifiers that you expect will make you feel more secure (or at least less insecure), persist in your effort to identify those pacifiers which you’re certain you can’t be happy or live without.

Trace those present-day pacifiers back to their primordial archetypes in your infancy and early childhood. Such a methodical deconstruction of attachment will begin to uncover the places where your nervous system was primed to be especially cautious, guarded, and tense.

Finally, become aware of these very places as vital touchpoints of your dependency on something greater. You have a need to live, to belong, and to be loved precisely because you are not a perfectly self-sufficient island unto yourself.

These needs are openings inviting your release to the present mystery of reality. Your essential emptiness is paradoxically the very ground of your being.

This is the truth that can set you free.

 

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The Price of Ignórance

We know for a fact that the pesticides we spray on our crops end up in our grocery stores. We know that rampant consumerism is unraveling the delicate web of life on our planet. We know that collateral losses of civilian casualties make wars criminally unjust. We know that teaching students what to think and not how to think is sterilizing their innate curiosity and creativity. And we know that exploiting the time and labor of our working class is eroding society from within.

But we do these things anyway.

When we go ahead and do something that we know is damaging the living systems we depend on for health, happiness, and a better future, we are demonstrating a willful disregard for the greater good. Alan Watts called it ignórance – where the accent signifies a deliberate intent to act (or not act) when we are fully aware that the consequences are (or will be) detrimental to the well-being of others and even of ourselves.

Genuine ignorance is when we don’t know what we need to know. Ignórance is knowing what we need to know but acting as if we don’t.

And yet, it must also be that something essential – some critical degree of understanding – is absent from the active knowledge set informing our way of life. Maybe this missing element is less about a comprehension of facts than an intuition of something else. I’m using intuition here as referring to understanding gained by direct insight rather than through a discursive process of logical reasoning or drawing inferences from available facts. To see into something means to grasp its inner essence or its place in some greater whole. Such intuition is spontaneous, and the insight it brings typically changes how we see everything else as well.

Our age is unprecedented for the amount of knowledge we possess – or at least for the amount of information we have access to. We can get facts on just about anything by searching the cloud with a smart phone. Whereas not long ago our questions would have stirred curiosity and wonder, maybe inspiring us to imagine what the answer might be or do some research ourselves, today we can get 160,000,000 search results in less than a second. 160,000,000! Who really needs to think anymore?

We’re at a place, however, where our ignórance is sending us, together with the entire planet, to the brink of disaster. Toxic chemicals in our food are switching the genetic code of our bodies and programming them to self-destruct. Byproducts of consumerism are choking the atmosphere, poisoning rivers and oceans, burning rich topsoil into sand, melting the ice caps, swamping seashores, and disrupting global weather patterns. Standardized testing and the industry of turning students into graduates has turned many students into depressed failures instead.

We haven’t been doing these things forever, but it’s as if we can’t not do them now since the landslide of consequences is moving too fast to jump off.

Behind our ignórance are convictions, beliefs about ourselves, others, and the nature of reality that are so closed and rigid as to hold our minds hostage. Something inside us knows that these cramped quarters are far too limited to contain the whole truth, not to mention what can’t even be rendered in language because it’s too fluid, dynamic, and impossible to pin down. But we’ve already made the agreement to trade away our access to reality for the security that convictions promise. The problem is that they can’t deliver on this promise, and no matter how tight and small our convictions become, the insecurity persists.

My diagram illustrates the four strands of human intelligence, what I name our Quadratic Intelligence. These strands come online during distinct critical periods, with physical (VQ) development leading the way, followed closely by the awakening of emotional (EQ) and then, later on, intellectual intelligence (RQ). A fourth strand of spiritual intelligence (SQ) is held open as a possibility, but depending on how things go at earlier stages, many of us may never enjoy the inner peace, creative freedom, and higher wisdom it makes possible. The reason for this will help us get beneath our convictions – which, remember, lie (sic) behind our ignórance.

The first challenge of existence was for our nervous system to match our external conditions with an internal state. A safe, stimulating, and resource-rich environment was matched with an internal state of security, confidence, and curiosity. Conversely, a harmful or resource-deprived environment was matched with an internal state of anxiety, which made our nervous system reactive and hypervigilant. This match of internal state to external conditions is all about calibrating sensitivity and motivating behavior that is adaptive. Anxiety motivates avoidance behavior, reducing exposure to danger and risk, which is nature’s way of helping us stay alive.

When the nervous system is set at higher levels of insecurity (i.e., anxiety) we tend to be overly sensitive to signs of threat. What might otherwise be a display of normal behavior in another individual is misperceived as guile, pretense, or aggression. An adaptive response in this case would be mistrust and suspicion, keeping distance and always ready to head for the exit.

For obvious reasons, an anxious nervous state severely affects the early development of emotional intelligence. We tried to manage our insecurity by clinging to things and people that made us feel safe, pushing away what was unfamiliar and different.

The above diagram depicts an in-turning spiral between the physical nervous system and our emotional intelligence, sucking the psychic energy of consciousness off its intended upward path and into a strangling vortex of insecurity. In some cases the anxiety can be so intense that we are sure our extinction is imminent. But most of us are just insecure enough to work hard at keeping our attachments close by.

So what happens when a large portion of our energy and attention is tied up in the things, people, and life arrangements that help us manage our deeper insecurity? The answer is that we form strong beliefs around them. Beliefs so strong, in fact, as to prevent us from thinking outside the box. Thinking is concrete, binary (either/or), and inflexible, crimping down on latent abilities for abstraction, paradoxical (both/and), and inclusive thought.

But then, in order to carry on with our mind in its box of convictions, we have to learn how to willfully disregard all evidence, logic, and common sense which suggests that what we’re doing is causing harm, or at least is counterproductive to what, deepest down, we really want for ourselves, our children, and the human future.

That’s the price of ignórance.

 

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