I was looking out the window this bright sunny morning watching all the birds dining at our bird feeder. They were busy going about doing their thing, which at the moment was eating sunflower seeds. Next, I thought of the role they serve in nature by eating seeds. Presumably, they deposit some of those seeds elsewhere and some eventually sprout. Of course, they are not aware of the vital propagation role they play in nature. They simply follow their needs or fears of the moment.
This pondering instilled in me a sense of awesome underlying unity throughout nature, or as chapter 56 puts it, This is called profound sameness. To be sure, I’ve always regarded our place in nature as being essentially no different from other animals. We simply follow our needs or fears of the moment, unaware of our fundamental role in nature. The trick is to maintain a deep sense of this connection, this “profound sameness”, as much as possible. It is all too easy to become blinded by moments of need or fear—effectively no different from the birds I was watching. The only slight difference is the human imagination’s ability to perceive outside the subjective box of need and fear. Alas, life constantly pulls me back into the ‘game’, and emotionally skews imagination in the process.
Finishing up my work here
My pondering this morning leads me to add this postscript to the book, to round out the story. Pushing 80, I’ve said most of what I had to say. Wrapping things up actually began with The Tradeoff (p.549), which concisely summarized my views of how our species got to where we are, and where we may be headed.
Briefly, humanity is truly in the early days of civilization. It’s only been some 10,000 years, which evolutionarily speaking, is only the end of the beginning, if that. Much of civilization’s processes are at odds with humanity’s innate emotional needs. Indeed, most of the problems in the world we see are a result of this mismatch. Naturally, civilization will evolve over the coming millennia to a point where it is less problematic. In part, that will happen due to extending the human lifespan. You know, “Older and wiser”. Of course, as Oscar Wilde noted, ‘With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.’ Certainly, we all have known some unwise older adults, but overall aging does bring wisdom. Consider these few excerpts from The New Science of Practical Wisdom.
When reviewing the relationship between aging and wisdom, it is worth considering how the biological machinery of wisdom changes over the life course. From a peek under the neural hood, does the aging process result in a tuning of the engine, or a rusting of the gears?
In this respect, neurodevelopmental trajectories may be pertinent both in youth and in older age. Reward motivation and emotional circuits develop faster than pre-frontal control circuits, resulting in greater emotional reactivity, reward-seeking behaviors, impulsivity, and risk-taking in youth, with subsequent reductions in such activities with enhancement of prefrontal inhibitory control, leading to a higher level of practical wisdom.
This indicates that although deficits in sensory processing increase with aging, the brain may be bringing online regions highlighted above as being associated with wisdom. Essentially, cognitive and sensory deficits associated with aging may be accompanied by an uptick in the use of the wiser parts of the brain.
Finally, as the brain ages it also changes in how it responds to emotions. Central to the processing of emotions is the amygdala, and recent research has shown that its sensitivity to emotional stimuli changes across the lifetime. The amygdala in younger people shows heightened activity in response to both positive and negative visual images in comparison with neutral images. In older adults, negative images no longer trigger heightened amygdala activity, but positive images continue to do so. This age-related ‘Positivity Effect’ may underlie the calmer and more positive behaviour in older age.
Wisdom is associated with greater subjective well-being in older adults. This suggests that, while the aging process may well help facilitate the development of wisdom, the resulting wisdom may, in turn, help in navigating the inevitable challenges that all humans face – those of aging and dying well.
We humans are not the only animals that face the “inevitable challenges that all humans face – those of aging and dying well”. The work of living is a reality all animals endure. In addition, we also deal with an existential stress resulting in part from our cognitive “disease”, as chapter 71 calls it, i.e., Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. All the same, each generation of a species must learn through living how to balance the instinctive forces within. This is why I feel much of Buddha’s Four Truths apply to all animals (see Buddha’s Truths Pertain To All Life, p.545). It is essentially on-the-job training for us all. As animals, we try, we stumble, we adjust, and we get a little better at the skill of living as we age—increasing wisdom is an inextricable result of aging. This postscript is my brief summary of how I view and deal with this existential aspect of life. I’ll begin…
Nature’s Bell Curve
A bell curve is a type of normal probability distribution for a variable in nature. The top of the curve shows the mean and median of the data. Its standard deviation depicts the bell curve’s relative width around the mean.
Undoubtedly, I’m using the bell curve distribution less rigorously than a professional would. But hey, this is taoist thought after all. 🙂
Nature plays out on a bell curve of possibility. You could see this loosely as the extreme ‘yin’ on one end and the extreme ‘yang’ on the other. We innately have both poles within us, a bell curve spanning the whole of human (a.k.a. animal) nature. Ponder this listing of a few of these poles:
Cooperative vs. competitive; tranquil vs. active; moderate vs. greedy; kindness vs. cruelty; friendly vs. angry; love vs. hate; wisely deliberate vs. foolishly impulsive; and so on down the line of temperament responses (1).
The chart shows the probability of some temperament extremes. Some people will be extremely kind, others extremely cruel, and most of us a blend of both but not usually to the extreme. However, this chart can also represent the range of extremes within each person that can sometimes play out, even if rarely, depending on circumstance and such.
We are biologically social animals and this means we are innately predisposed toward kindness and cooperation. The Biblical sentiment, “on earth peace, good will toward men”, speaks to our social instinct for cooperation, kindness, love. This instinctive selfless sentiment is like the glue that binds us together as a social species.
The other side of this curve, the innate impulsive, competitive, active, greedy, cruel, angry, and hateful characteristics are the self-protective responses that help glue the individual ‘selfish’ self together, so to speak. These ‘yang’ emotions can overtake us when circumstances threaten our expectations, whether imagined or biologically innate. This threat triggers fear, including innate fear of loss, pain, failure, and death. Fear then fires up pressing needs that demand urgent satisfaction.
Survival is the primary aim of life, with pleasure and pain pulling or pushing our selfless and selfish emotions in ways that we intuitively feel will fulfill that innate goal. Which pole emerges to express itself, which emotion plays out at any given moment, is a function of circumstances and temperament—never one of ‘free’ choice, despite our belief to the contrary. We are but spectators in this game of life. Oh, but how we believe otherwise, wishing and struggling to control our moment. The final line of chapter 3 gives a most helpful hint on how to deal with this, Doing without doing, following without exception rules.
At it happens, we usually maintain a happy middle point on this bell curve of reaction, but circumstances can change that instantly. Clearly, we wish we had the ability to manage our reactions better, and wish even more that others would. In fact, our wish for free will is so deep, even instinctive, that it is natural to believe we truly have free will. Granted, we do have a moderate ability to make choices, to guide our actions, and to moderate our reactions, even to sit still and meditate. However, our innate temperament, over which we have zero control, determines our ability to do even this. In fact, chemistry (alcohol, drugs, food) is our only easy way to briefly influence temperament and the rest.
Nature is a package deal
The observations I make on how we are emotion driven animals is an abstract scientific reality that is intellectually comfortable enough for me. However, I find that emotionally facing the ruthless reality of that to be extremely heart sinking at times. The real-world facts can be very uncomfortable for anyone who is not sociopathic. I feel a visceral deep-seated need for us to get along, be kind, honest, fair… but reality simply crushes this wish. To be sure, we humans have our moments of kindness and the like, but the bottom line is how easily we can turn on a dime and revert to our innate selfish instincts, which are merely the complementary side of our selfless ones. The fact is, nature is a package deal. Yet, I innately feel a continuous urge to increase the ‘good’ and decrease the ‘bad’. Surely, this urge must be one of the driving forces behind religion, e.g., “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”.
I find the first step towards leaving some of this naive ‘good’ positive baggage behind and “nearly rising beyond oneself” is openly recognizing these poles within me. They are all there in one degree or another, depending upon personal temperament and circumstance. Naturally, I am more inclined to notice the ‘good’ aspects of my character and turn a blind eye toward the ‘bad’. Yet, the ‘bad’ always lurks in the background ‘Good’ and “bad’ are two sides of the profound sameness coin. In seeking or in avoiding one always creates the other. As the beginning of chapter 2 cautions,
It takes self-honesty to peek behind my curtains of self-rationalization. Yet, even here, I’m stuck with honesty (good) vs. prevarication (bad). Certainly, finding a pathway through my own limitations must count as life’s ultimate challenge.
Resolving the problem of injustice
The Tradeoff (1) went a long way toward resolving my deep urge to ‘solve the world’s problems’, as they say. When I witness hurtful and unfair human behavior, I am able to diffuse much of my angst by chalking it up to being a natural consequence of hierarchical civilization. Humanity simply traded the egalitarian old way of the hunter-gatherer for the increased comfort and security of civilization, and we all must pay a price for that. Nature won’t allow us to have it both ways!
Yet, still, I feel the instinctive distress of witnessing injustice and the like. I may be civilized on the outside, but deep down, I’m still a hunter-gatherer hominid. We all are! We just do our hunting and gathering in different ways now, yet moved by the same instincts as our ancestors. Those ancient egalitarian social instincts still tug on my heart, your heart, our heart. What to do? Chapter 65 offers me a hint…
Always investigate the patterns.
That is called profound moral character.
Moral character, profound indeed, distant indeed!
To the outside world, contrary indeed.
Then, and only then, reaching great conformity.
Accordingly, the only solution I’ve found is to maintain a rather continuous awareness that this inner sorrow I feel is (1) natural and (2) impossible to escape. It is part of life. It is a cross we all bear, whether we know it or not. I have no choice but to conform to nature’s way. Chapter 63 suggests a way, with the last lines summing it up well, Accordingly, the wise man, still of difficulty, For this reason, in the end, without difficulty.
Do without doing,
Be involved without being involved.
Taste without tasting.
Make the great small and the many few,
Respond to resentment using kindness.
Plan difficulty out from its easy.
Do the great out from its small.
All difficulties under heaven must arise from the easy.
All that is great under heaven must arise from the small.
Accordingly, the wise man, in the end, doesn’t support greatness,
For this reason he is able to accomplish greatness.
The man that rashly promises, certainly few trust.
The excessively easy, certainly excessively difficult.
Accordingly, the wise man, still of difficulty,
For this reason, in the end, without difficulty.
Just allow myself to be, to strive on diligently. ‘Then, and only then, reaching great conformity’ as chapter 65 put it.
The bell curve in natural phenomena
While I’ve been discussing the bell curve vis-à-vis emotional temperament responses, the bell curve distribution can also offer insight on a wide range of natural phenomena. For example, the Trump presidency has baffled me for a while. How could so many people, half the country, support someone of such low noble character? Finally, the bell curve offers me a clue. Briefly, just as some folks innately prefer chocolate and some vanilla, so too do some innately prefer a dictatorship and some a more egalitarian form of government. That would explain the rise to power of many a tyrant—Stalin, Hitler, and Mao in particular; kings and warlords in general. It is a visceral choice, not a rational one, and certainly not a free one. Circumstances undoubtedly play a large role in this choice. In other words, current circumstances play a major role in the bell curve’s distribution of variables. In trying times, more will support the supposed strong man.
Additionally, our very social nature as a species exacerbates these matters. Our tribal instinct easily overrides any evidence that threatens group solidarity. The resulting social groupthink means we are more ‘monkey see, monkey do’ animals than we’d like to admit. The self-image we have of ourselves, our species, is very out of sync with the reality. The only mitigation factor is the slight increase in wisdom that comes with a long life, as the science on wisdom is now revealing. Individuals simply have to live long enough to outgrow some of their childlike groupthink inclinations. Indeed, the younger we are, the more certain we feel that our beliefs (whatever they are) are true. We feel that our take on the world is accurate. It is we, in our beliefs, not ostriches who stick their heads in the sand. The odds of doing that can only decrease as life experience pushes back on the ‘disease’ to which chapter 71 refers. Viewed as a bell curve, youthful characteristics are on one end, old-age characteristics are on the opposite end. As the median age of the population increases, the median characteristics of old age become the new normal.
Homo sapian asapian?
I must say though, that this Trump era has been a truly sobering experience. It bears out much of what I write about. We are animals, through and through. Yet we have a story that paints us in a higher light, a wiser light. Take how we name ourselves, Homo sapian sapian . Sapian comes from a Latin word meaning “one who knows” (Latin: sapere = to know). Thus, Homo sapian sapian = the human who knows that he knows. But as chapter 71 observes, this is our ‘disease’. The true game changer will occur when our species finally realizes this and changes its name. Perhaps to Homo sapian asapian, or something to reflect our realization that we don’t know. (‘a’ is the Latin prefix for not, as in asocial, amoral, asexual, and so on.)
Still, it is always heart sinking for me to see how far from being sapient we are, which in itself is odd. Honestly, that must be just part of my ‘disease’… i.e., chapter 71’s Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Even while I do realize I don’t know, I still think; the dipolar (2) nature of that alone is an act of thinking that I know, as Correlations (p.565) demonstrate. There is no escaping being human, eh?
It fascinates me how disappointing it all feels for me, given my deep realization that humans are not different from other animals. It is as if a species-centric ‘we are better than that’ story lingers in my deep subconscious. It must lie at an innate visceral level. My emotions can’t accept what my mind’s eye clearly observes. I imagine all this results from how my brain’s empathy inducing mirror neurons naturally pull me into expecting better behavior from us all. Still, the mystery lingers.
Speaking of Mirror Neurons
The extraordinary human capacity for empathy is a result of mirror neurons. Empathy, like any other emotion, greatly influences thought. This creates an interesting, perhaps unique, quandary for humans. On one hand, this empathy (+) thought imparts an ability in humans to feel a profound sense of connection to nature and the universe beyond the narrower instinctive self-interests that usually drive life. Indeed, it bestows on us a sense and idea of spirituality, of god. Conversely, thought (–) empathy only magnifies narrow instinctive self-interests which profoundly disconnects us from what is naturally so—from nature itself. For every benefit comes a cost.
Mirror Neurons, Ghosts and Gods
I was standing in the surf at dusk the other day looking out over the horizon. My mind’s eye felt the photons streaming from the Sun to Earth that were producing the sky’s evening glow. Actually, my mirror neurons where allowing me to feel empathy for the photons, and in that spiritual union, I felt the strong sense of connection to something beyond my self. Then I thought, “How is that any different from a person whose mind’s eye feels the presence of ghosts, spirits, God, or any other intangible?” Of course, it’s the same. Both impart feeling a sense of connection—even to the point of profound sameness
The trouble, the schism, begins when we get obsessed with naming this feeling in an attempt to possess it. Chapter 14 suitably describes what we are trying to hold on to.
The naming then becomes the answer to some aspect of our life. This makes mountains of spiritual unity into molehills of belief which easily blind us to the without of shape form, the without of matter shape all around us. We put all our spiritual eggs in one basket. From there it is just a short step into institutionalizing ‘a God’, rallying around ‘Him or Her’, and going to war on ‘His or Her’ behalf… or if not war, at least claiming we have a corner on the ‘Truth’. (See Do you believe in angels?, p.25)
Hunger and our ‘disease’
Our need for the answer plays a core role in our disease. And the connection between food and this need for answers reveals why. For a hungry empty stomach, food is the ‘answer’. For a questioning empty mind, answers are the food it seeks. The promise of food, and by extension answers, attracts us like moths to light. Biology biases us to favor answers over questions, food over hunger. Indeed, questions are the unknown that can quickly terrify us and push us to grasp for any answer that fulfills. This naturally produces the disease that chapter 71 reveals.
We grasp for any answer to fill our mind’s space, especially if we lack a sufficient sense of intuitive connection. Much of our intuitive sense of connection in the world deepens as we mature, (i.e., We only understand what we intuitively know, p.254). This is one reason why children soak up experience and why it’s harder to teach old dogs new tricks. In addition, the deep intimate social connection common in ancestral times is not sufficient in civilized circumstances, making us all the hungrier for answers—for knowing we know.
Where does desire fit into all this? Desire is the hungry urge to fill up the emptiness, whether food to satiate hunger, or answers to satiate uncertainty. Desire drives the journey from empty to full, question to answer, problem to solution. Fasting and meditation are two spiritual practices that help push back on the incessant urge to fill the space. As chapter 16 begins, Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness. Done with some consistency, chapter 16 ends with this desired result: The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself. In a sense, we learn to sit with the unknown… even embrace it.
A final word on fear
Need stood out this morning as the driving force behind those birds, us, and every creature in between. However, need itself is only a manifestation of underlying fear. If you’ve read this book, you know fear and need are the fundamental principles for most of my observations. In the case of Homo sapiens, need + thought = desire and fear + thought = worry. Those two, need and fear, are the driving forces directing the actions of all living things. Thus, this mornings ‘insight’ is not very surprising. While need and fear are the common denominator between all life, fear is primary.
Fear resides within all living creatures to facilitate survival. Essentially, fear is the innate sense of entropy within all creatures. Entropy threatens life’s survival. So, in fact, fear embraces us all… ALL life. Therefore, a deep awareness of fear (‘A proper sense of awe’, as D.C.Lau translates chapter 72) is the thread that deepens my sense of connection to all life.
The only impediment to maintaining a ‘proper sense of awe’ is a natural ignorance of life’s bottom line (see How the Hoodwink Hooks, p.100). In addition, fear induces thinking apes like me to increase this blindness by seeking scapegoats, rationalizations, validations, solutions, etc. All are dead ends eventually, and rob me of a deeper sense of nature’s profound and sober reality.
There are a few things I hold dear in my attempt to manage fear. Especially helpful are Buddha’s Four Truths, particularly the fourth one, “There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty”.
Duty is what in my heart of hearts feels to be my life purpose, what gives life meaning, and what action facilitates that meaning and purpose.
Desire is primarily the fusion of need + thought. Innate fear drives the need part of desire, which puts need outside my control. Thought is the only feasible gateway to influence desire, albeit just barely (i.e., when emotions are calm). For example, thought can help me focus on and remember what my duty actually is in life, practically speaking.
A real breakthrough occurred once I realized that I truly never regretted doing my duty, and conversely, that I often regretted not doing it. Then it became only a simple matter of remembering that fact. Now, my near constant awareness of that alone is usually enough for me to follow without exception.
Note here also how closely Buddha’s Fourth Truth aligns with chapter 3’s, Doing without doing, following without exception rules. ‘Doing without doing’ is innate action, the kind of ‘duty’ all animals perform. Only humans imagine desirous scenarios that promise a favorable future. ‘Following without exception’ occurs when my sole desire is the performance of my duty. When my will is bent on what I ought to do, I am most in accord with my innate nature. (Again, see Buddha’s Truths Pertain To All Life, p.545).
Fight or flight
Fear underlies both desire (need + thought) and worry (fear + thought). Indeed, fear drives all action, and the action will be either fight or flight. When desire is stronger, fear naturally pushes me to fight. When worry is stronger, fear pulls me into flight, and I naturally try to escape.
This is straightforward enough so far. However, pleasure and pain are also important components of this fight or flight dynamic. Generally, pleasures attract me and pain repels me. If doing my duty feels more pleasurable than not doing it, I’ll do it. The weaker my sense of duty is, the more easily worry rules (i.e., fear of boredom, loneliness, discomfort, work, etc.). Here, the pleasures I pursue to escape are merely fleeting sensory experiences. Naturally, this is fine, but a little goes a long way. Without the duty-derived pleasures in life, life becomes less meaningful, less enjoyable. As Buddha said, “All things are impermanent. Work out your own salvation with diligence”. Diligence is a key word here. Pursuing sensory pleasures requires no diligence, and so imparts little, if any, life meaning… let alone salvation. Does this sound like a messy business? Ha! That’s why living can be such a challenge.
Once I perceived that fear (sense of entropy, loss, failure, death) was at play in everything I did, I knew fear was at play in every living creature as well. Then I knew there is no ‘conquering fear’. Fear works both sides of life’s equation. Knowing there was no escape, futile quests to gain some advantage began to fade away. This helped liberate me from most of life’s second-guessing, hypocrisies, double standards, etc. Without such baggage, life became simpler and more universal (see You are Immortal! p.391), with all its pleasure and pain going along for the ride, so to speak. Surrendering to reality allowed me to act naturally. Again, Doing without doing, following without exception rules.
(1) I feel a major reason I write on these matters is to be helpful, first to myself and then to others, if possible. By observing life, pondering what I see, and writing about it as skillfully as I can, I get a better handle on it all. It’s my way of seeking Buddha’s Right Comprehension. The Tradeoff, in particular, really helps me to grasp the ‘big picture’. However, this will only hold true for a few. Frankly, all animals (including humans) instinctively feel the need to have it both ways; we wish to get the most benefit, for the least cost… even free if possible. The Tradeoff sums up why that’s futile. This is why that essay and the rest of my writing must naturally fall largely on deaf ears. “We only understand what we know” (p.254) explains why this may be true.
I consider “what we know” as being our intuitive visceral sense of life, and not the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ knowledge with which education stuffs our brain. What we intuitively know most deeply are the primal instincts that move us through life. One instinct is an innate urge to follow the path of least resistance. Thus, we yearn for simple solutions and straightforward answers that promise to fulfill our dreams. We’re not interested in knowing why we are where we are; we mostly want to know how to leave ‘here’ and go to our imagined much better ‘there’. By the way, my ‘monkey see, monkey do’ framing of education will feel utterly heretical to anyone embracing mainstream culture. All I can say is love is blind.
This “what we know” matter brings me back to chapter 56’s, Knowing doesn’t speak; speaking doesn’t know. The knowing that we can speak or think about is a dipolar categorization of the reality we perceive. Speech and thought require this naming for language itself. We divide the natural whole, the ‘profound sameness’ to which chapter 56 refers, into bite size chunks that the brain can handle. The stories that ensue are reflections of our own fears and needs, not of reality. As a result, no one truly knows nor has ever known what they are doing now or in the future. We simply stumble into the future. Thus, the wisest advice is always, once again, Doing without doing, following without exception rules.
(2) A dipole is a term in physics that refers to a pair of separated electric charges or magnetic poles, of equal magnitude but of opposite polarity, i.e., negative (–) vs. positive (+) or N. vs. S. Life has adopted this natural dynamic to perceive its surroundings in a way that promotes survival in a competitive environment. In life forms with a nervous system, neurons communicate through an electrochemical process… (–) vs. (+). Given this, it is not surprising we see reality in a (–) vs. (+) mode. This (–) vs. (+) dynamic influences how humans label their perceptions: yes vs. no, good vs. bad, yin vs. yang, life vs. death, active vs. passive, go vs. stop, hot vs. cold, before vs. after, hard vs. soft, heaven vs. hell, male vs. female, white vs. black, and so on. Thus, I see language is the emergent property of a fundamental negative (–) vs. positive (+). See Tao As Emergent Property, p.121.
Naturally, such dipolar-like perception is essential for survival in the wild. It boils choices down to the simplest level — yes (+) vs. no (–). However, the human ability to think and remember makes this both a blessing and a curse. Chapter 1’s, These two are the same coming out, yet differ in name hints at the curse. Not only do we see life through simplistic dipolar names; this dipolar thought locks the illusion into memory. For us, dipolar-like perception hinders recognizing that all this is simply, albeit profoundly, two sides of the same coin. Chapter 56 is forthright about this…