Saturday, November 11, 2017

Primitive Emotions

Angry Kitten 2016-17...

I may go back to this painting after the first of the year when I have some concentrated time, so any input is welcome.


The way our location shapes us is profound. We grow into the space of our lives in a network of relationships. Our actions and behaviors develop around its requirements of us. People are affected by the overall state of the location they are part of, an interaction of multiple systems at work in the area. The patterns of living are structured within these systems and adaptive to them. We don’t choose our starting locations but do carry them around in the circuits of our brain where we can return and search the spaces of memory for strategies to apply to new places. The first homes and the social relationships within them create the conditioned patterns that later overlay other homes and surroundings. Our relationships in our first home create expectations for how they are structured later. If they are difficult, we may seek out those who provide the same difficulties to try to heal old wounds.

In the effort to understand who we are, more attention might usefully be given to where we’ve been and its influence on our present way of being. Those that argue that we don't have free will because activity happens in the brain before we are conscious of having the thought aren't considering that the Where circuit in the brain is faster than the What. We realize what we feel by the adjustment within to where we are. It is the stage for how we are, the setting for further action in relation to it. Each of us is a center of awareness at a particular point in spacetime, a perspective for consciousness. What we come to understand from the accumulated locations of our lives is the foundation of what we have to offer. It’s different for everyone but the pattern of human needs, enacted wherever we are, is universal, so while the perspective is different, we share a responsive core.

We understand the meaning of a place by its relationship to us which at first we feel as a sense of safety or uncertainty, so the essence of visual intelligence is in the ability to read the meaning in what we see. That is why looking at art makes such good education. Its emphasis is meaningful relationships, in the distillation of what is significant. As the world of information becomes more complex, seeing the relations in the whole will be essential.

Spending more time with screens has sensitized people to the power of imagery and using visual language. A picture says more than a text, gets further inside your head. Even with the simulation of being somewhere else than the body in virtual reality, you know you put on the goggles. Your consciousness recognizes the layers of reality. This extension of imagery to immersion could build intelligence and be therapeutic. Because the actual dangers are neutralized it could be an effective way to face fears and develop empathy, to feel what it is like to inhabit another’s world. It could open new ways to think about consciousness. The accumulation of imagery from the locations in a life creates a symphonic worldview that encompasses the complexity of experience and is the perspective we offer the world. It is time to imagine new levels of mind.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


Happiness and Virtue

   The connection between happiness and virtue occurs again and again across time and cultures. Aristotle saw happiness as the result of cultivation and use of virtue, his golden mean was similar to the Buddhist middle way. Many of the readings in I Ching emphasize the importance of being “Blame free” and working for the good of all. Modern brain science confirms what the philosophers observed. The chemicals secreted when we are giving to others were the subject of an article in Psychology Today.

   I appreciated that the article treated smiling at another person as an act of kindness and it’s certainly the most available. I was about to call it the easiest but actually that wouldn’t be true. it takes some effort and a little courage to jump into another’s space and risk rebuff but if a person is willing to meet your eye they usually smile back. And the person who doesn’t see you at all has made they’re judgment known, and it wasn’t personal because they didn’t see you in the first place. When I give money to a beggar it’s more important to me to give them a chance to talk and be seen, the dollar is just an excuse to offer some compassion. I almost always feel good afterward. In terms of brain chemistry giving  increases oxytocin (the cuddle chemical) primarily associated with mother/child bonding, which strengthens connections to others. This increases dopamine and serotonin. The resulting increase in empathy builds our ability to read the intentions of others, a powerful executive function. Not only does it feel good, it makes us smarter.
  Other studies have shown we also stimulate endorphins when we are kind. The pleasure we feel keeps us doing it. The chemistry is there to keep us in harmony with others and recognize it as our own benefit. Could the rampant unhappiness in today’s world have to do with the culture’s encouragement of antagonism and judgment? Choosing targets responsible for our unhappiness rather than the roots in ourselves never solves the unhappiness. Judging others is just a way of pushing ourselves up a notch, an expression of the ego at the base of our suffering. But the more we judge others the more harshly we judge ourselves. The Buddha linked compassion to happiness, both in the ability to bring happiness to another and in the feelings generated by the encouraging brain chemistry.

   Another way we give is through our work. Whatever it is, it is something we contribute. Finding something that absorbs our interest develops and strengthens the frontal cortex which is richly connected to the pleasure centers. In a ted talk, Elyn Sachs said the best defense against mental illness is an absorbing project. It’s confirmed by my own experience and my sense that happiness involves sending attention outward. The more attention we give the more it gives back.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Cosmic Well

Shifting Images

    If we thought of ourselves as significant parts of a larger whole, why would we chew on our own foot? The current widespread inability to care about other people and the planet is because they are seen as outside and other. Unacknowledged fears and dissatisfactions attach to the outside other creating the illusion we know where the danger is. The devouring of the weak by the strong is the animal tendency that the first law in human history, the Code of Hammurabi, was written to prevent. A righteous society kept the strong from harming the weak. This was seen as the step needed to transcend our animal nature. As Eldridge Cleaver wrote, “Survival of the fittest is the law of the jungle. Cooperation is the law of civilization.”
     In a specific section “the Code” recognized and penalized unproven slander, that human tendency to call out those faults they themselves possess. I’ve come across this observation in Marcus Aurelius, Marcel Proust and Willa Cather and psychology. Look at current public figures for plenty of examples.
      A precept found in all religions says treat people the way you would like to be treated. I think of it as the law of the mirror neurons, empathy cells, they are sometimes called. We understand what hurts others through our own feelings so damaging others requires ignorance of personal feelings. Prejudice and antagonism can’t be solved with a surface veneer of proper behavior. It requires psychological self-awareness, seeing the things we fault in others as the things within ourselves we need to recognize and master.
     Spending time every week working with the I Ching is my tool for self-development. Its good advice on how to be a “superior person”  is entirely dependent on the qualities in yourself you cultivate, where you give time and attention. This is actually strengthening those qualities in the circuits of the brain so it becomes second nature. To build on your own best qualities creates the self-respect necessary to respect others.
     Respect for every individual creates harmony. Dividing things into categories divides us into groups that emphasize the differences. Labels deplete meaning and sever connections between people. When we call courtesy “Political Correctness”, it turns the virtue into something scorned. With categories, you get sorting and ranking, preferred and privileged, and the association with labels and brands that keep attention on the surface.

    Images communicate through commonality, the way we all respond to what we see. The meaning depends on the whole context and each person gets their version of the same essence, the different details of life unified by the shared patterns of experience. Artists can provide unifying images that offer a visual truth about our connectedness. Though we may be an individual nest of skin containing organs, we are nested in a family, in a community, in a region all the way out to our shared planetary nest which contains us all. We are responsible for the condition of our nest, and with the right images we can change the way we see.