Sometimes the brain gets in the way of a happy life. This is a basic tenet of Buddhist thought. It is also the subject of considerable importance in many Native traditions.
One of the ways the brain creates suffering is to insist things are one way or another, leaving very little room for complexity. To catch a whiff of this, simply watch a couple of political ads, or listen to ten minutes of almost any call-in talk show. Part of the problem is the brain is designed to take short cuts. Brains use an enormous amount of energy, and running efficiently is important. Often, the need to conserve energy results in the failure to perceive complexity, resulting in erroneous interpretations of events.
One arena in which this phenomena becomes visible is in discussions of social and environmental issues. One on side stand those who insist we are all individuals and the needs of the individual trump whatever social benefits might be gained by favoring the needs of the group. The other side points out we are all connected via innumerable biological and social pathways. If we go back far enough, we discover we even share the same few ancient mothers! When this view is taken to extreme, the needs of individuals for self-expression, creativity, and learning are quashed.
The complex answer is both are right. As individuals we have needs, hopes, and aspirations. Too many social constraints create great suffering. Of course, a lack of social structure also creates immense suffering. The challenge is in finding a balance point.
Here in Vermont we have had an astounding sixteen straight months of above average temperatures. Increasingly, we wonder whether the climate has passed some tipping point. Tipping points are those moments in time when a system moves from one state to another. Often there is no returning to the previous state. Rather, a new balance point must be found. The journey from tipping point to new balance can be tumultuous. It is when we find ourselves on such a journey that we may turn to others for aid and healing.
The metaphor of the journey towards a new balance point works for transitions in families, individual lives, cultures, and climate. A tipping point has occurred, our world is out of balance, and we are suffering. We are not who we were before, nor are we who we will be when a new balance point has been found. Yet, the system we call “I” or “We” remains a system. Only with death does a biological system reach an irrevocable level of disorganization. Things are more complex for social organizations, for many cultures perceive the dead as close at hand and engaged in the lives of the living.
Everything we do impacts someone else. Every action alters us and the systems connected to us. Sometimes we can think things through, making decisions that to the best of our knowledge address the complexity at hand. Of course, we are seldom able to know all of the implications of our actions, and are all too often faced with unforeseen consequences. No wonder brains seek to take shortcuts!
Evelyn Hutchinson wrote eloquently about the circularity of causation in ecological systems. (One can view the brain as an ecological system; the body is certainly such a system.) He coined the idea of The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play in an attempt to address the complexly interactive relationship between living systems. James Lovelock applied Hutchinson’s ideas to the geological/biological interface that yields climate. Gregory Bateson used similar ideas to think about mental illness and family systems.
We are both individuals and infinitely connected to All That Is. There are serious consequences for poisoning our relationships and environment. When we turn to considering the implications of our actions we may find the concept of “Karma”, removed from its use to justify slavery, useful. Karma is simply a statement of fact: our actions matter. They are also accumulative in their impact; the effects of our thoughts and actions find their way back to us. Acceptance of this allows us to be relational, and to reduce the frequency and impacts of the dramas that drain the vitality from our lives and relationships.
Of course, these ideas are not new, having had a long and productive life among Indigenous people around the planet. I was taught from an early age that all beings are sacred, and deserve to be met with care and respect. I was also taught we are all infinitely connected. I may not read your mind, but I do breathe the air from your longs.
Out of all this arises a great and curious possibility. We can train our brains to look for complexity in patterns and relationships. We can insist on the freedom to live our lives with passion and purpose, yet seek to minimize adverse effects on others. We can claim Selfhood and insist on the right of all systems to do so, while realizing that Self is meaningless outside relationship. In doing so, we may learn that complex thinking has its rewards.