Creating islands of peace in a terrified world

Wednesday 10 November 2004 at 15:06

The world in which we live is full of unnecessary suffering. While homo sapiens have created many beautiful things, many extraordinary things, far too much of our collective work is destructive rather than creative. In general our ingenuity and energies often lead thoughtlessly toward suffering and destruction, rather than understanding, compassion, or beauty.

I have a collection of practices that have reduced my own suffering enormously. I share them here with the hope that you may also benefit from them, reduce your own suffering, and increase your constructive contributions to the world. I have no particular need for you to accept what I offer here. But I hope some among you will find value in these practices and reshape your own corner of the world around values of peace, acceptance, compassion, and beauty.

The Really Big Picture

There is a purpose to our existence: to experience Love and Joy.

We are individuals who live in groups. This creates the most basic tension between our own needs and the needs of our family and our community. At our best, this tension creates the most profound experiences of love and joy. At our worst, this tension creates our deepest suffering.

Balance is a key part of the big picture. The universe at every level works toward a balanced state. The suffering in human experience is an effect of our own imbalance.

"I understand about indecision
but I don't care if I get behind.
People livin' in competition.
All I want is to have my peace of mind."
-Boston

What is needed individually and collectively to maintain the balance is peace of mind. When our minds are at peace we act creatively in the world, and we experience and expand love and joy. When our minds are not at peace we act destructively. All of the suffering in the world are effects of our collective imbalance and the destruction which emerges from our imbalance.

The most promising path away from destruction and suffering and toward love and joy is to create peace first in our own hearts and minds. We must trust the magic of emergence to create solutions to the big, global problems. As we gain our own balance we can help those in our immediate group to regain their balance. We can create islands of peace in this terrified world. We can create networks between our respective islands so that we may know that we are not alone in this effort to restore the balance.

The practices I offer help to create and sustain individual peace of mind.

The Root of the Problem

Vanishingly few of us are raised with the unconditional love of our parents. Vanishingly few of our parents were raised with the unconditional love of their parents. And so on. We grow into our understanding of the world with the distorted notion that love is somehow scarce and uncommon, that we must prove ourselves worthy of love, that we aren't naturally acceptable. The lack of unconditional love undermines our belief-in-self. At the critical foundation of our lives, we learn to doubt and second-guess ourselves. We learn to guard our own love and joy cautiously, and to cling to what shreds of love and joy we find in the world. We learn to hoard the love instead of sharing in it. In so doing we create the very scarcity we fear.

These distortions become ingrained in our perception of the world, ingrained in our understanding. In a sense the distortions are cemented into our own minds. It turns out to be quite difficult to change your mind. A change of mind is exactly what's needed.

A Picture of the Mind

Know that I am not a neurologist, nor cognitive scientist, nor psychologist. I have no credentials to claim my picture of the mind is in any way authoritative nor measurable. I offer a metaphor. I am a geek, so you may notice a striking similarity to a computer.

The mind very simply responds to incoming stimuli with information relevant to the stimuli.

Stimuli are just information that enters the mind via our senses. The mind responds to one bit of information with another bit of relevant information drawn from memory or intuition. The secret sauce that sets our minds apart from a computer is that the mind responds with relevant information. The relevancy filter makes all the difference. What's important to notice is the positive feedback loop. The positive feedback loop causes the mind to run in vicious or virtuous cycles depending on the character of the information stream.

The Missing Manual

We all live with our minds but mostly not in any intentional way. We swim around in a stream of consciousness as the mind sifts our memories and experience through the relevancy filter. We have implicit knowledge of the mind but not explicit knowledge.

All of my practices rely on the same trick: intentionally inserting thoughts into the feedback loop to effect the character of the cycle. I insert thoughts which strengthen balance and peace of mind, intentionally seeding the feedback loop to steer towards virtuous cycles and away from vicious cycles.

The trick is to trust the relevancy filter and specifically ask the mind for what you want in the way of information.

State of Mind

The mind wanders a continuum between peace and fear. A peaceful mind creates virtuous cycles of information which foster creative and constructive actions. A fearful mind causes vicious cycles of information which foster our destructive behaviors.

Consider again how the mind works. It simply responds to stimuli with relevant information. If we respond to a stimulus with fear, the information will be relevant to the stimulus, but it will also be relevant to the fear. Those bits of information stimulate another cycle of information that is also relevant to the fear. Our minds can become consumed by fear. Our usual tools for dealing with fear are destructive.

If we can respond to the stimulus without fear, we will get a stream of relevant information. From this stream we act creatively.

These vicious and virtuous cycles in individuals are magnified geometrically in groups. The effects of peace and fear in individuals feed off one another. Our destructive behaviors create fear in others who then create their own destructive behaviors. By contrast, our creative behaviors may solve problems for others freeing them to address other challenges.

Instinctive Responses to Fear

Our instincts offer only limited responses to fear. In immediate life-threatening situations we will fight, flee, freeze or faint. None of these responses are creative, nor particularly effective. They have served the species well enough to get us where we are today, but very few of us face situations which are immediately life-threatening. Nevertheless, we live in fear and even non-threatening social situations can provoke the same bodily responses -- increased pulse, sweat, shortness of breath, heightened awareness, hyper-sensitivity, and edginess.

Variations on these instinctive reactions to fear manifest in non-life-threatening situations. A fearful mind responding to stimuli will first deny the fear. When the fear remains the mind will respond with ways to cope with the fear. When coping fails, the mind will compromise with the fear. When compromise fails, the mind will defend the fear. When defending the fear fails we descend into a generally self-destructive pattern which allows us to survive with the fear.

Some survival patterns include drugs, alcohol, or other addictions which aim to dull the pain of surviving with fear. We may also try to control or manipulate those around us to ward off our fear. My survival pattern is perfectionism and avoidance. I try to get something exactly right or I try to avoid it altogether. I also end up with a lot of self-directed anger and condemnation when I fall short of perfection or get bitten by a problem I was avoiding. Other patterns include depression, anxiety, jealousy, gluttony, sloth, and various other destructive behaviors.

Survival patterns are where we suffer with our fear. As our own suffering eats away at us we often share the suffering by lashing out at those around us or deceiving them or even just by whining.

How it should be

Children who are raised with unconditional love grow into the world with an incredibly powerful belief-in-self. This belief-in-self is like a strong immune system which prevents fear from taking hold of the mind.

When faced with a scary situation, those with a strong belief-in-self will assume they can rise to the challenge and find a creative solution. Their minds are not consumed by the fear and the destructive responses to fear. So their mind will be filled with a stream of relevant information, uncluttered by fear. They can think clearly under the pressure and gradually the steps that need to be taken become clear.

It is strong belief-in-self that allows people to trust their own minds, to trust their own resourcefulness. Fear cannot find a hold in their minds.

Few people enjoy such profound belief-in-self because few people were raised with unconditional love. It is very, very difficult to bootstrap belief-in-self. Creating belief-in-self is the key to creating a balanced and peaceful mind. But changing our minds is much more difficult than we are led to believe.

The Practices

We can break our own vicious cycles by practicing more constructive responses to fear. The basic trick is to intentionally and repeatedly insert thoughts into the feedback loop. These are instructions to the relevancy filter to tune the kind of information that the mind digs up for us.

"Release my fear"

Filter out the fear, please. Request information that is only relevant to the situation at hand, not information that is relevant to the fear. This is the most direct way of responding constructively to fear. Just tell your mind to let it go.

"Peace of mind"

Asking for peace of mind is the same as releasing fear, but with a positive spin. Instruct the filter to favor information that will calm the mind and maintain the balance.

"Belief-in-self"

Ask your mind for information which reinforces your belief-in-self. This is a longer term investment. Building belief-in-self helps reduce the need for actively releasing fear or asking for peace of mind. Specifically asking for belief-in-self can help summon courage when faced with scary news.

"Needs be met"

"You can't always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes
you might find
you get what you need."
-Rolling Stones

Ask for help with a leap of faith. This is an intentional adjustment in perspective. Whatever may appear to be looming on the horizon, creating fear in your life, you are still alive and breathing. Many times before there have been things looming on the horizon creating fear. But in all previous cases, your essential needs have been met or you wouldn't be here alive and breathing. Ask your mind to remind you of the times when you have narrowly succeeded against the odds. Ask to be reminded of the times when your failures turned out to be less disastrous than you had imagined. Ask to be reminded of the times when you have recovered from failure with unexpected follow-up successes. There's plenty of evidence in your experience that things work out in the end. Needs are met.

"Practice acceptance"

This is the hardest of the practices for me.

As we ask our minds for specific information about a problem, a pattern emerges. Who do I need to talk to? Where do I have to go? What exactly do I do next? When to I break the news? More often than not we just don't know. We may know most of our answers, but some key piece eludes us. So we analyze the hell out of the situation and try to force or coerce that last ingredient out of our own head. But the simple fact of the matter, it isn't in there and no amount of re-hashing the same collection of facts can change it.

Practicing acceptance is closely related to asking that needs be met. In my own experience I eventually discover that key information in time to prevent catastrophe or to recover from my mistakes. Even the need for information has been met. Practicing acceptance is also a leap of faith. It is accepting that I don't know the answers now, but I will. I will know the answers when I need to know them. Accepting that I don't know those answers now frees my mind to work on other problems.

"Solution in progress"

Insert a belief into the feedback loop that needs are met and that there is a solution in progress which will resolve whatever issue is creating fear. I've found this one to be a powerful compliment to practicing acceptance. It helps me get over my overgrown sense of responsibility for the world. I did not personally create the war in Iraq, for example. I sure haven't been able to extend any influence over our continued imperialism. This is a problem that is considerably out of my reach. By inserting the belief that there is a solution in progress I can free my mind to attend to things that I can actually influence. (Like, oh, say, finally publishing these practices for creating peace of mind).

...to be continued

MM commented

11 November 2004 at 11:49

I'll actually comment for one, briefly...
I'm not 100% convinced that it fits into your practices (because they're mainly about overcoming fear).

But I'm a big proponent of "Empathy" to reduce the ills of the world...