By Loi Eberle, MA, CPC
People are talking about the impending “shift”. They mention terms such as climate change, national and global political transitions of political leaders around the world and the approaching end of a cycle. Usually their next statement describes a variety of projected upheavals, depending on their worldview. Some see a potential time of new beginnings and collaboration. Others talk about running deep into the woods to survive on wild game. The common theme at both extremes is the belief of an impending shift causing changes in our familiar way of life; for one reason or another it will be no longer sustainable.
Even if this is all idle speculation and completely unfounded, the reality is that some form of change is always occurring. We know this; it is part of life. Get used to it, I’ve been told. Even when things seem to smoothly perk along, transition is inevitable. The only choice we have in that scenario is our attitude. For example, it is possible to be flexible and adaptable. The alternative is a rigid refusal to change, clinging to expectations that things will remain the same. At some point even then it becomes apparent that resisting change takes more energy than acquiescing to its inevitability. Finding a way to navigate the new path is the better option though it might involve steering towards tumultuous waters.
Most days dealing with the normal ebb and flow of life seems manageable, yet what if there is validity to the warnings of much larger changes on the horizon? Contemplating this type of transition can provoke the paralysis of anxiety, which interferes with problem solving. Research and common sense show us there are other approaches that can be learned. People who survive the most disruptive and traumatic events are less traumatized when they have some recognition that they have choice in how they will react. Though they might not have had any control over the occurrence of the event, their realization that they have some choice in their next action serves as a beacon of light. People who find some choice and control in their response react differently during traumatic events and are not traumatized to the point of suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. The people who feel victimized and powerless during the traumatic event are the ones more likely to be susceptible to PTSD.
Visionary scientist and author Greg Braden recently held a workshop in Sandpoint featuring the discoveries and ideas he presented in his book: Deep Truth. He talked about the importance of what we collectively held as our truths about ourselves, and how these beliefs affected how we respond to events. He pointed out that there has been a series of five 5,125-year-long-world age cycles and the latest one is ending. We are the “generation that bridges two rare cycles of time…Ancient and indigenous traditions remind us that, as the bridging generation, our choices determine which beliefs of the last cycle we will carry as the foundation for the future.”
He also reminded us that our beliefs come from what other people tell us about our world. These ‘others’ are the scientists who provide the scientific traditions that are the very foundation upon which we build our world, and define how we go about solving the problems of life. He suggests that although today’s civilization could be considered the pinnacle of creativity and technology, it is also what has created tremendous losses and suffering through war and genocide, and has seriously harmed the environment upon which we are dependent for life. “It’s precisely these beliefs that often leave us feeling small and helpless in the face of life’s greatest challenges,” Braden remarks, and then asks, “what if we discovered that we’re born with the power to reverse disease, could choose peace in our world, abundance in our lives, and the length of our lives?” What if we realized that the universe is directly affected by a power that “we’ve hidden from ourselves for so long that we’ve forgotten it’s even ours?” Describing how this radical paradigm shift would change what we believe about ourselves and our universe and the resulting impact we could have, he goes on to say “this is precisely what the leading-edge discoveries of our day are showing us.” It might be helpful at this point to remember Buddha’s statement: “All descriptions of reality are temporary hypotheses.”
Alluding to the ‘false assumptions of science’, Braden explains that throughout time basic tenets of science are eventually disproved. For example, our culture has long been influenced by Darwinian Theory regarding survival of the fittest, and the attitude: ‘let the strongest live and the weakest die.’ Describing this as a ‘very dangerous idea’, Braden and many others point out the research that includes over 400 peer reviewed studies that describe how violent competition always has negative results. The general attitude shared by most of the industrial modern Western World is that our origins are random, our bodies are separate and powerless, independent of the earth, and that competition and conflict solve problems. Others view this type of thinking as the source of our problem, claiming: we aren’t random, we are connected, there is a cyclic, nonlinear past and we solve crisis through cooperation and mutual aid.
Noble Award winning scientist Neils Bohr, who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, stated, “Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution. It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it.” If we think of ourselves as separate and powerless, Braden points, out, then conflict actually makes sense. Yet we can all find something, either in examples we’ve seen, or incidents reported in the media, about the tremendous abilities we possess that can be accessed when we search deep within ourselves. In those moments of inspiration or desperation, we can tap into the connection that our deep self has to a Power and a Place That is Beyond Words, that is part of the Source of great works of art and inspiration. Physicist and philosopher, Peter Russell, in his book from Science to God writes: “Our inability to account for consciousness is the trigger that will, in time, push Western science into what the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift.”
We have choice; we can develop our attitudes and direct our responses. We can search to discover sustainable ways of living, or we can cling to the old, unsustainable ways of the past. Braden points out the importance of knowing the truth about our origins and history, because this deeply affects our beliefs about our choices. We can either compete against each other and go to war for resources, or collaborate to find solutions and work together to manifest them so that we can all survive. There are many examples that cooperation is an incredibly successful strategy. Throughout history, collaboration is the way people survived during massive difficulties. Collaboration makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; it is good for our species. Braden described recent publications about new discoveries of civilizations that precede our recorded history. He pointed out that there is only evidence of violence in the last 5,000 year cycle, and suggested that violence has only occurred when people and/or their way of life are threatened. In general our hope is that by collaborating, we can help each other, rather than compete against each other through aggression.
Obviously it would take a huge shift in attitude to collaborate, although crisis might make it more necessary, and perhaps more likely. Generally it’s been accepted that one’s attitudes and behavioral ‘set point’ were fixed before adulthood and cannot be changed. Fortunately this attitude is changing! A main message in Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, is that emotional competencies are not innate talents; they are learned abilities; they are something you can deliberately acquire with practice.
Jon Kabat-Zinn also writes about the research showing that the brain is able, through meditative training, to reorganize its activity in the direction of greater emotional balance. Other studies have shown that the brain reorganizes its very structure as well, an example of the phenomenon known as Neuroplasticity. A new book by one of the earliest engineers of Google, the software and technology empire, is called Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness [and world peace]. It is written through the collaboration between a Zen master, a CEO, a Stanford University scientist, and Daniel Goleman, who wrote the book on emotional intelligence. The primary author, Chade-Meng Tan, is referred to as ‘Meng’ and is also known as “Google’s Jolly Good Fellow [which nobody can deny].” Meng teaches a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum at Google, described in his book, based on the premise that “ordinary Americans working in a high-stress environment with real lives and families …can change their lives … develop the optimism and resilience necessary to thrive… [and] deliberately improve empathy with practice.”
The three steps identified by Meng for this process are based on themes evident in Eastern as well as Western mystical traditions. They are described using a brevity of words befitting a zen practitioner/engineer:
1. Attention training [create a quality of mind that is calm and clear at the same time]
2. Self-knowledge and self-mastery [observe your thought stream and process of emotion with high clarity from a third-person perspective]
3. Creating useful mental habits [volitionally train your habitual, instinctive first thought to be when meeting someone: I wish for this person to be happy.]
Even if no extreme shift in world events occurs, and learning to collaborate is not an immediate necessity, it would help us to learn how to calm our minds on demand; learn to better concentrate, be more creative, and to discover the self-confidence that can arise naturally in a trained mind. The choice is everyone’s.
We can either manifest mental health or mental illness. Psychologist and UCLA professor Dr. Daniel Siegel, in the Pocket Guidebook to Interpersonal Neurobiology, defines mental health as having emotional balance. Achieving that balance is almost like riding a seesaw. Siegel describes moving between “an individual’s internal and interpersonal lives” so that one’s “states of arousal” have enough intensity so that life has meaning, but not too much for life to become chaotic, or too little arousal for life to become rigid and depleted.” He emphasizes that it is helpful to develop integration, rather than rigidity and chaos.
The way to become integrated is by learning how to self-regulate so that we don’t become hyper-aroused by our thoughts or actions. Learning to become aware of our responses helps us to control them, rather than being reactive. Meng advocates creating the type of self-knowledge that eventually enables self-mastery. A neuroscientist with the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Richard Davidson, published work in 2003 showing that certain meditation techniques practiced over a period of time can change the stress circuitry. The most important element of these techniques is to detach or disengage from the stressor for a moment, in order to develop a new perception about the stressor.
During his workshop, Greg Braden described a technique called HeartMath, developed by Doc Childre and Dr. Deborah Rozman and described in their book, Transforming Stress. These techniques are used to break the stress habit the moment it occurs, as a way of transforming the habitual stress circuitry. It is a technique to change one’s heart rhythm by becoming aware of one’s emotional and attitudinal state at the moment that a stressor is being perceived. By generating compassion and caring, greater coherence is created, improving the variability of the heart rhythm. This can be documented objectively with monitoring equipment as well. Childre writes: “You have the choice to invest your emotional energy in reactions or to self-regulate – and that choice makes the difference between empowerment and victimization…The heart is not where you become trapped by your emotions, rather, it is the source of your power to transform them.”
Braden explained to his workshop attendees that by choosing to care and collaborate, we actually affect the hormones we secrete, and change our heart rhythms, which measurably affects our magnetic field. Nurturing increases levels of oxytocin, the mammalian hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain that is involved in social recognition and bonding and may be involved in the formation of trust between people and generosity. Both the research and our intuition tell us that kindness and compassion generate more positive outcomes than hatred and aggression. The most powerful tool is our heart, many teach. Childre writes: “This power of the heart is a new discovery for science, although it’s been a part of most cultural and spiritual traditions for ages. Now that science has confirmed that the heart plays a significant role in emotional management, in efficient brain function, and in the processing and decoding of intuitive information, the hope for the twenty-first century is that people everywhere will learn to connect with the power they already have inside.“
The ancient yogic and Buddhist traditions teach compassion. Jesus Christ teaches us “the greatest of these is love.” Scientists are beginning to recognize the vagal nerve response between our head and our heart region and how that affects our physiology. Seeing that this is part of our “hard wiring” brings us back to the idea that it is evolutionarily beneficial for us to connect with our heart, our compassion, rather than to allow our anxiety and aggression to damage our physiology.
As it has been suggested, the only time people become violent is when the safety of themselves, their families, or their way of life is threatened. Many messages from our media and our politicians tell us that our lifestyle, our health and safety is being threatened. There are warnings about impending resource shortages caused by power struggles, population growth and economic greed.
As we’ve learned about resilience and dealing with trauma, what allows people to thrive rather than be victimized, is to find ways to have choice. We can choose to cooperate and collaborate, or we can choose to fear and compete. The power of creating our reality is indeed in our hands. Yes, even though we might not be able to have any impact over what happens to us, we certainly have choices in how we will respond.
Compassion and fear might be occurring simultaneously; we might fear losing what we love. Focusing on gratitude and compassion is more a powerful way to create solutions than succumbing to fear. The choice we have is whether our actions will be based on caring, concern and cooperation, or whether we will let our fear produce paralysis, rigidity, competition, coercion, and destruction. Whenever moments of rigidity and anxiety occur, it might be helpful to remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: “what lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters to what lies within us.”
By experiencing gratitude and compassion for the fleeting miracles of life in all their manifestations, we can choose to remember the beauty of our essential nature and our interconnection with all of life. This can help us resonate with our heart connection and compassion, transforming our stress and anxiety into caring and gratitude, to everyone’s benefit.