Saturday, September 25, 2010

Evolutionary Psychology

I've recently been a bit negligent with regard to posting on this blog because I've been going through a period of pretty rapid personal growth. It's been painful, but I think that I've managed to make some real progress in dealing with my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This has been a pretty complex job---it's involved work with a therapist, in-depth reading on PTSD, and hours and hours of communication with a friend of mine who has offered real help based on her own problems with another issue.

One other thing that has really helped is Michael Dowd's book Thank God for Evolution. There are a lot of good things in this book, but one thing that I find really useful to consider is his take on "evolutionary psychology". As he explains the term, modern brain physiology says that our brains consist of evolutionary "over-lays". This means that discrete elements of our brains evolved during different parts of our evolutionary history. This means that there is a part of our brain that is very similar to the brains of fish and reptiles, another that is similar to that of lower-order mammals, another that is very similar to monkeys and primates, and another part that is pretty much unique to human beings.

What this means for our lives is that each part of this multi-layered brain has a direct impact on our consciousness. This means that the "lizard brain" is what pushes us to be aggressive and competitive, which is pretty important to basic survival. The lower mammalian part of the brain is what drives our emotions and allows us to bond with other creatures in order to create social relationships such as parent/child, husband/wife, team/player, and so on. Since lizards and fish don't nurture their young or work in groups like wolves or cows, this new ability was necessary to ensure the survival of lower order mammals.

Once primates came onto the scene, however, more complex stuff became important. This included things like how to get along with other primates because the pecking order in monkey troupes is really important. This led to the complex way our minds constantly fusses and tries to work out different "scenarios" that might result if we follow a specific type of action. This leads to the noisy "internal dialogue" that Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism call the "monkey mind".

Finally, human beings have the added complexity of being able to think of their own place in the world through self-awareness. Evolutionarily, this is important because it allows humans to not only react to situations, but to also make long-term plans that allow us to do things like plan for the future and work out complex strategies based on different scenarios. These in turn allow us to do things like create societies and technology.

The problem for people is that these different elements of our make up don't always work well together. Every person has their own particular issues and it is very common for the "lizard brain" to sometimes overwhelm the higher mind, which leads to things like problems with anger management or getting into stupid sexual entanglements. For others, their "monkey minds" cause problems either by constantly harping on potential problems, which leads to anxiety disorders (like PTSD) or that old academic problem: "analysis paralysis". Other people become so caught up in their higher brain functions that they end up making crazy life choices based upon their crazy idealism. In a way, I think that this explains the people who become terrorists---they so obsess about the particular idealized view of the world that they lose all perspective about it.

Another problem is the mismatch between what our brains have evolved to do, and the world we find ourselves in today. For the overwhelming majority of human existence, our primary environment has been in small hunter-gatherer groups. We're supposed to be hunting woolly rhinos, not writing computer code, dammit! I think that this explains why governments seem to fixate on trivial issues while ignoring honking huge issues---for example, why is it that people get so upset about gay marriage while turning a blind eye to climate change? I would suggest that it is because our brains evolved in a situation where the interpersonal relationships in the small tribe were very important whereas things like the weather were "just there" and not something that we had any control over at all.

When I look at my own personal consciousness from this point of view, I have a lot more forgiveness for the times that I have not lived up to the ideal that I expected of myself. I also find that I have a lot more forgiveness towards other people now, because I understand how much of their behaviour is governed by urges and instincts that are not appropriate to our present reality---yet which are still very hard to ignore.

This isn't to say that I now give everyone a "free pass" on life's responsibilities. People still have to learn to "do the right thing". But I now have a greater appreciation of the difficulties involved. I hope that this new appreciation will eventually give me some wisdom that might make it easier for myself to progress towards a greater integration of these different elements in my being.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Poetry, Songs, Goths and Industrial Music

I've recently been spending a lot of time in correspondence with a dear friend who lives in another country. One of the things that I've learned from her is how important music can be for understanding and communicating emotions. And by "music" I also mean poetry, which finds its expression in our society almost entirely in the form of lyrics. Like a lot of people from all ages, I've found that poetry talks to me and articulates the emotions that drive my life. I thought that I'd toss out some of these influences and share some of the music that has filled my life.

One of the themes that has dominated my life has been the horror I feel at the slowly accelerating ecocide that we are all living through. Being a practical sort, this sort of thing makes me angry and has driven me to take action in a variety of ways. I've worked in politics, written hundreds of pages of articles for the media, organized protests, done community organizing---I even sued Walmart once. Motivating me was a sort of dark rage that fueled a self-image as an "eco-warrior", sort of like the knights errant that come out of Chinese literature like "Water Margin".

One of my favourite Industrial bands, "VNV Nation" sums up this feeling very well in their song "DarkAngel/Azreal". The lyrics are as follows:


In your dream you see me clear
I have no restraint, no fear
Powerless I watched from faces I'd assumed.
My purpose set. My will defined.
Caress the air.
Embrace the skies.
Escape the sorrow and restraint of mortal cities.

Give me time I will be clear.
Given time you'll understand
What possesses me to right what you have suffered.
I'm in this mood because of scorn.
I'm in a mood for total war.
To the darkened skies once more and ever onward.

So many years I stood among the thoughts
and tears of those I served.
Among my own I was alone through my own doing.
All the years I walked unknown
behind the faces I assumed.
Powerless to clear your mind of what you'd suffered.

They fall again.
They fall again.

Give me time I will be clear.
Given time you'll understand
What possesses me to right what you have suffered.
I'm in this mood because of scorn.
I'm in a mood for total war.
To the darkened skies once more and ever onward.
There is no faith in which to hide.
Even truth is filled with lies.
Doubting angels fall to walk among the living.
I'm in this mood because of scorn.
I'm in a mood for total war.
To the darkened skies once more and ever onward.

I'd only come here seeking peace.
I'd only come here seeking me.

It seems I came to leave.

It isn't just a feeling of anger at the death of nature that I feel and see reflected in the music I listen to, it's also a sense of loss and sadness that comes from realizing that it is too late. We should try, but the fact of the matter is that the people who can see the future are doomed to be Cassandras who will ultimately be ignored. This Namnambulu song seems to be somewhat optimistic, but ultimately it is a plea and a call to arms more than a plan to action.

Now or Never:

As we have wandered thousand years
through centuries of blood and pain
I don't believe that god can feel
our mere existence

Technology is who we serve
as we kill by remote control
we do not see and do not feel
disaster is coming

It is time to know that it's now or never
There will never be another chance
What is wrong in doing things together
If you try to take another glance
Now that you've been tryin' so hard to get there
It would be a shame to just let go
Nothing's gonna happen if you just stare
Wouldn't it be hard to never know

Is there no way to intervene
to change belief of those who rule
or do we really have to face
our self-extinction

If he has ever been above
then he must truly be asleep
or we must pray for our souls
that he is forgiving.

I think that another theme that these Industrial/Goth songs are wrestling with is the death of traditional spirituality and a desperate longing for something more. I think that is what all the vampire, ghost, zombie, etc stuff is all about. Possibly the best articulation of this comes from the band Ashbury Heights in their song "Eternity at an End".

Eternity At An End :

Overnight our world went flat
Can't do this and can't do that
Long live mediocrity
Greater than the deep blue sea

Eternity is at an end
We have no more Gods to send
No one longer hears our prayers
We are left to our despair

Eternity is at an end
There are no more rules to bend
We have played our final card
Killed the play in which we starred

Freedom has been torn to shreds
Three Cheers For The Newlydeads
Honor doesn't mean a thing
Empty words a pleasant ring

I don't know if the average Goth would articulate this, but I can't help but thinking that all the dark clothing, black lipstick, etc, is the same sort of thing that Johnny Cash used to do when he refused to wear anything but black clothing. As he explained it, he was in a sort of permanent mourning for all the injustice he saw in the world. In much the same way, I think Goths are in morning for the death of many things---including nature and God.

I can really relate to that. If I weren't so old, I'd probably be out their wearing the clothes and pancake makeup too. But it is a youthful thing and the most I could end up looking like is a sort of Goth Colonel Sanders, which would just be silly. But I truly love the music, which seems to have adapted the very best elements of the pop and classical traditions.

Even though most of it is very sad, some of it has a sort of chilly elegance and beauty. Consider this song by Qntal. The song is sung in medieval German, but I found this translation on the Web. The video on the Youtube emphasizes a sort of neopagan idea of the power of nature and the feminine. Contrast that with the despair of Ashbury Heights and Namnambulu's songs, which are saying that there is no God in the sky who cares about our fate. Qntal's song is a finger pointing towards some future alternative. It is cold, and chilly, but it is hopeful none the less.

Von Den Elben:

By the elves many a man was enchanted,
So was I enchanted by strong love
By the best woman a man has ever befriended.
But will she for that reason hate me,
And stand up against me,
Willing to take her revenge on me
In doing what I ask of her; then she will make me so happy,
That my life will perish with joy.

II. She rules and is in the heart of mine,
Lady and mightier than I am myself,
Hey, if I ever could have that much power over her
That she stayed faithfully by my side
For 3 whole days
And some nights
Then I would not loose the life and all the power,
Yes, she is unfortunately much too independent of me.

III. I am inflamed by the light of her eyes so bright,
As the fire does to the dry tinder,
And her treating me like a stranger offends the heart of mine,
Like the water the glowing embers,
And her high spirit
And her beauty and her dignity
And the wonders, they tell of her good deeds
That is bad luck to me - or maybe good.

IV. When her bright eyes turn to me in a way
That all through my heart she sees,
Who would dare go in between and trouble me,
He must have all the joy of his totally destroyed,
I must stand in front of her,
And await my delight,
Just as the little bird (awaits) the light of dawn.
When will I ever achieve such happiness?

I could go on and on about this music. I listen to classical music---both Western and Chinese---but this goth industrial stuff is what I put in my MP3 player and listen to when I walk to work. It is sad, but one thing that I've learned over the years is that we have to accept and work through our emotions if we ever hope to get beyond them. And I think that the Goth music embodies the sadness that many people feel for the death of nature and God. Until we are willing to feel this sadness and work our way through it, we will never be able to make the transition to something better.

So if you can, find some time to listen to their laments and if it fits, wear something black. We're all at a funeral and it is only fitting to dress in mourning.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Stunted Vocations

I've been thinking lately about how our society totally fails to understand and support people with spiritual vocations. I know that in my case I went for years and years of my life feeling that I had a strong, personal need to get really involved in some sort of religious organization. But every time I tried to reach out to connect I was pretty much told to bugger off.

One time I reached out to the pastor of my parents church and asked him what his ministry consisted of, and he said "Drinking tea with little old ladies and working with the cub scouts." At the time I was appalled, but I think he was just trying to say "don't even think about the Christian church, because it isn't for you."

Another time I answered an advertisement in a magazine for the Claretians. I wrote a few letters back and forth to the fellow in the advert, but when I pointed out that the only religious experience I'd ever had was with Buddhism, he wrote that I should probably stick with them. (Just as well, the Claretians suffered horribly in what Noam Chomsky calls "the CIA's war against the Catholic Church"---I don't think I would have wanted to end up in a dead in a ditch somewhere in Central America.)

It even occurred to me once to "swallow my intellectual pride" and make an honest attempt to join the local Roman Catholic community. I went to a few classes of an adult catechism class, but was so horrified by the gobble-dee-gook that the priest was spouting that I gave up. (I had read far too much Biblical scholarship by people like Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg to be able swallow all the nonsense.) I also found that no matter how I tried, I simply could not walk through the doors of a church---it was like some force was keeping me out. (Maybe I'm a vampire?)

All through this period of searching, I was also spending ten years studying philosophy at university. This was somewhat intellectually satisfying, but also deeply frustrating. "Philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom", but I couldn't see very much wisdom being manifested by the people who were teaching me. Indeed, I once asked a professor about what a student should do who was really seeking wisdom and he got quite uncomfortable and said he didn't have any idea what "wisdom" was or why I would ask a philosophy professor about it.

His reaction and philosophy professors in general puzzled me for years, but I eventually I was able to figure out the disconnect. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I required a great deal of education to understand the issues at play.) Academic philosophers are not selected on the basis of their wisdom as philosophers, but on the basis of their abilities as academics. This really came home to me when I attended the memorial service of the professor I've just mentioned. Lots of colleagues talked about him, but not one said he was a "wise man". Instead, over and over again they talked about what a great scholar and academic he had been.

I might aspire to someday being a wise philospher, but I know I will always be a lousy academic---and I couldn't care less.

As readers of this blog will know, I eventually ended up getting initiated into a Daoist lineage---which is sort of like being ordained as a Daoist "priest" and have become at least a little comfortable as a "hermit". But for the vast majority of "seekers", I don't think that just hoping for something similar to happen to them is a viable option.

I don't think that I was alone in trying to find some sort of answer to the "vague itch" of an unfulfilled vocation. At one time I did some disciplined research into religous cults and I came across an article by a sociologist of religion (Eileen Barker) who had done surveys of people who had joined the Unification Church (or "Moonies".) She found out that the highest correlation between joining or not joining the Moonies she could find was how one answered question about whether or not one had had some sort of relgious experience (I forget her specific wording.) She said it was remarkable---the Moonies had not only checked it off as being highly relevent, they'd written notes in the margins saying thing like "YES!!!", whereas the control group had checked it as being irrelevent and wrote notes like "What a bloody stupid question!". Barker's comment on this finding remains stuck in my memory "It is perfectly acceptable to tell your college room mate who you slept with the night before, but there is no possibility that you would tell him or her that you'd seen a vision of the Virgin Mary."

In other words, what was attracting people to the Moonies was some sort of spiritual calling that our society seems incapable of fulfilling in a better way.

This is a key problem for our society. It simply doesn't know what to do with people who have religious vocations. The mainstream religions have "dumbed themselves down" to the point where it is almost impossible for someone with any sort of intelligence and self-respect to get involved. Not only does this keep people on the outside looking in, it tells every other segment of society that the whole enterprise of religion is a total waste of time---which is only indulged in by the stupid and venal. (I think that this is why so many folks who describe themselves as "Daoist" go to great lengths to point out that they aren't religious Daoists.)

The problem with this is that many people who have religious vocations are people who really do experience the world in a very different way than others do. They can be "tender hearted" in a way that makes life in a totally secular world very painful to live in with its coarseness and needless brutality. They can also be people who have religious experiences and who need help from experienced others integrating these into their way of looking at the world. And part of this can be a deep need to "give" to the world in a way that it is very difficult to do on your own because secular society refuses to assign any value to this sort of activity. Just leaving these people to flounder on their own strikes me as evidence of a society that simply doesn't know how to honour all of its citizens.

Every other society that I have ever heard of has made an place for people with religious vocations. Primitive societies had their shamans and "medicine men". The ancients had their philosophers like Plato and Diogenes. The Chinese had Daoist and Buddhists clerics. The Muslims have Sufis. The medievals had the Benedictines, Fransciscans and many other orders. But I'm not sure that modern society really has a place for anything like that anymore, and I think that it not only creates a vacuum in the lives of people like myself, but I also think that it leaves a hole in our entire culture.

I've personally been able to carve out my own niche, but it has come at a real price. I have wasted many years of my life because I was rarely able to find any source of help to deal with the spiritual issues that confronted me. Moreover, my ability to use what gifts I have and insights I have gained, are profoundly limited because I exist as an isolated individual instead of being a member of a like-minded group. Far, far worse, I have met others who have lacked my opportunities and who have floundered most of their lives without being able to meet with the direction that could have really helped them on in the world. How many others have simply quietly slipped beneathe the waves never to be seen again?

What a waste---.