Thursday, 14 April 2022

The Terminal Case of Certainty

 "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd."

                                                                        Voltaire (1770)

                       Image: changeandstrategy.com
As I look back at my life, I am so happy I was told by my Buddhist teachers when I was 12 that the world was VUCA – a volatile, uncertain, complex and an ambiguous place.

The teachings informed me that life is uncertain, impermanent and at most times unsatisfactory and that there is suffering in the material world.  This seems a dire prophesy to teach an impressionable teenager, but as I witnessed examples of this around me, it was palpable.

It taught me that I cannot be sure of anything in life, leaving me feeling somewhat vulnerable.  I could conclude on something, yet I had to have the humility to realize that the  decision I made could be wrong.  

It also allowed me to be flexible and open – with “strong convictions yet loosely held” as things are always changing. 

Being comfortable in my vulnerability in uncertainty saved me a lot of grief in life as I had some mindfulness tools to deal with the vagaries of being a parent, an entrepreneur - to face defeat, losing people and things, disappointments and to live through two insurgencies, a war, a tsunami, floods, hurricanes - to survive without being too scarred.   

It has also helped me navigate the global pandemic from 2020 without going into a place of fear and judgement by accepting my fallibility and mortality.  That liberated me to think critically about what was going on, what was being promoted as solutions and to make my own decisions.

It helped in dealing with the judgments others made of me for my opinions and questions by understanding them with compassion - for their positions and decisions. 

 Buddhist Influence among many others

Even though I am a student of many philosophies and religions, I was most influenced by Buddhist teachings.  

The Buddha ‘suggested’ (I say 'suggested' as they were not commandments attached to shame, guilt and fear) a few paths to liberation by accepting the VUCA realities with grace.  

He said where there is suffering  - with a commitment to follow a middle path and a mindfulness practice - I can put life in perspective to live a joyful life of balance with inner-harmony and equanimity.

Antidote to VUCA

The modern techno-industrial world has trained us through a left-brained bias to plan, be efficient, effective, strategize, compete - be cunning even - to win at any cost to sustain the consumerist machine through a narrative of certainty.  

The lights will come on at the flip of a switch, there will always be justice, economies will keep growing and this material abundance of external gratification will lead us to pleasure and happiness. 

However, when I become mindful and aware, I realize these ‘things’ are superficial and impermanent and can change for a myriad of reasons beyond my control.   

To accept that these are beyond my control is not easy as the conditioned anchors of 'certainty' are hard wired into us from a young age. 

Transcending the Super-Ego and the Left Brain

Harvard Neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor, in her book Whole Brain Living invites us to embark on a Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell’s monomyth) - to leave behind the left-brained anchors - the rational, ego-based consciousness that processes the reality of the world - the hero has to step into the unconscious realm of the right-brain.(1)  

That is a huge leap of faith to leave behind the familiar left-brained worldly knowledge, to let go of the external material anchors for many of us in the modern age driven by the individual SuperEgo. 

As Freud said, the SuperEgo is a censor, the judge that keeps me on a short leash based on my conditioning, to be accepted – first by my parents then extended to society.  I am constantly critical of myself, even mean and tyrannical – so fear and guilt are dominant emotions, as I keep on the treadmill of modern life to keep up with society's expectations.

Transcending the SuperEgo, akin to the left-brain requires a commitment to the inner-work through a mindfulness meditation and reflective practice, to get a hold of the mind, to become mature in our emotional intelligence to inquire into the nature life. 

When I can manage my mind - I can accept nature's reality to manage the inner narrative and how I see and respond to the VUCA world around me.

Einstein said, “We must be willing to let go of what we are to become what we will be”.  

That requires me to trust that there are alternate narratives to what we have been conditioned to in the consumerist world.  

That trust will keep me from running back to the left-brain every time I get afraid of something - holding steadfast to the right-side to let go trying to fix things - to trust in the universe, relax, let life go by to smell the roses, enjoy a sunset, cherish the company of a friend or just to sit and contemplate the miracle of life.  

Don't just take my word for it - inquire for yourself and see where it takes you.

Uncertainty and the Noble Truths

As I learned Buddha’s 4 Noble Truths at a young age and drummed into me over the years, I was compelled to let go of the common narrative of "my solutions are outside me" and take responsibility and inquire further to develop my own practice.

In the 4 Noble Truths, Buddha described the nature of suffering; its inevitability; the causes; and a path out of suffering in the Noble Eightfold Pathway, also known as the Middle Path. 

Buddha, who had his own Hero's Journey by realizing the unconditioned reality, taught that clinging to the conditioned reality was the route to disappointment and suffering.  

He made it easy for us to follow his suggestions by organizing them in an orderly way. The Middle Path’s eight suggestions were sorted into three categories:

1. Behavioral - which provides an ethical foundation with right speech, action and livelihood.

 

2. Wisdom and Insight arise through a conceptual foundation of right view, understanding and thoughts.

 

3. Mental discipline required to stop the thoughts, become aware to gain insights and wisdom about the mind, body and life is gained through the meditative category - right effort, for concentration through a mindfulness practice. 

 

Mental Discipline and Mindfulness Meditation

He suggested the mindfulness practice – meditation with a focus on the breath - to investigate and control my normally erratic, judgmental mind with a mental discipline - I can gain right understanding first by putting things in perspective.  

The mindfulness practice with a focus on my breath – 'in breath as life' and the 'out breath as death' – I may inquire and reason to put life’s volatile situations into a rational and logical perspective to gain that understanding through awareness. 

The meditation practice is subtle and hard to describe.  That is why it has to be a personal practice, so learn and try it yourself. 

My own practice helps me to move my mind away from the ego-based self-obsessed ‘me’ - the left brain - to regulate my conditioned thought process, seeking anchors of certainty, to become comfortable in the state of uncertainty and vulnerability - as that is the nature of life.   

With that understanding arises the right views and right thoughts leading to right speech and action.   As for me - I am a work in progress - the journey and the inquiry itself is interesting and rewarding, as I work towards equanimity -  contentment and peace of mind.

Montaigny and Ataraxia 

16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigny famous

for his skeptical remark, "Que sais-je?" – “what do I know?” - influenced many of the modern thinkers of the time about learning to live “appropriately” (à propos) as the “great and glorious masterpiece” of human life.

Montaigny coined the word “ataraxia” to mean equilibrium and I quote Maria Popova’s interpretation:

The art of maintaining an even keel, so that you neither exult when things go well nor plunge into despair when they go awry. To attain it is to have control over your emotions, so that you are not battered and dragged about by them like a bone fought over by a pack of dogs.

Mindful attention is the trick that underlies many of the other tricks. It is a call to attend to the inner world—and thus also to the outer world, for uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view. Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, as Seneca says, can never be bored with life.

Four Sublime States

Buddha suggested four divine states of being to complement the meditation practice to live positively in Upekha - Equanimity;

He suggested the first 3 states as essential to meet the fourth.

Loving Kindness (Metta) – even to people who have opposing views or even threaten me (of course I will defend myself if I am facing physical threat);

Compassion (Karuna) - to understand others in their situations and their stories with non-judgmental compassion;

Sympathetic Joy (Muditha) – to be happy in other people’s success – an antidote to envy and jealousy that plagues the modern world and what consumerism is founded on.  

Muditha is by far the most challenging for me as a strong part of my conditioning has been to compare and compete. 

Spending time consciously and with intention appreciating other people’s – my friends, relatives and peers’ - success has helped me to overcome my jealous and envious emotions to a large extent.  I realize even in this, I will not find perfection.

Equanimity (Upekkha) can be found through the above practices.  However, as long as I live my mortal life attached to people and things in the material world, there is suffering and uncertainty.  I may reach the ultimate Equanimity only when I am enlightened and I have a long way to go.

Personal Responsibility

As I mentioned earlier, Buddha did not ask us to embrace all this without thinking critically and taking personal responsibility. 

His teachings are suggestions assuming we are intelligent and mature enough to test for ourselves.  

Every human - from our nature and nurture, are at a different metaphysical, physiological and emotion plane.  Each of us will learn and play with this practice to find our own path to enlightenment - essentially letting go of our attachments, obsession with self and the ego to end suffering. 

Critical Thinking

Buddha in his Kalama Sutta suggested that we think critically about things before jumping into conclusions:

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.  Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.  Do not believe anything because it is spoken by many.  Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

 

...But by observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it”

These teachings prompts me to quiet my mind through meditation, think critically and to take responsibility for myself to live a life of inquiry in an uncertain world. 

They provided a foundation to set the stage for a life that has seen everything imaginable from being a self-employed entrepreneur, a parent to the extremes of war and a Tsunami in Sri Lanka to a move to start life again at age 53 with the family to Canada in 2011, which has been a financial and emotional roller coaster ride.

VUCA and the Global Pandemic

The COVID pandemic was an unprecedented opportunity for humanity to put a mirror on ourselves to realize our fragile existence.

When I apply the VUCA realities to the pandemic, I felt a dissonance with the politicians, bureaucrats and the mainstream media taking a linear, reductionist, even a militant approach towards a singularly focused enforcement of a permanent solution (Zero-Covid) to a virus that mutates before fading away. That is what organisms do in nature, they rise and fall – but never truly go away.

I accepted the initial fear-based global response to lock-down to protect the vulnerable as there were so many unknowns.  I also empathized with the officials who were trying to deal with a dire situation - and perhaps in their own minds, doubt and fear may have set in with so many lives at stake. 

However, as awareness and understanding increased with time, I was mystified by the politicization and overreaction with continued shutdowns, mandates and silencing of a wider inquiry and a narrative required in a complex and nuanced situation as this.

I was surprised by the institutional abhorrence to critical thinking and questioning, even dissent based on science and real-time data – to shutout debate and censor discourse - to take a one-size fits all approach, when all hands were required on deck.

Kuldorf, Gupta and Battacharya
 
It is evident that the left-brained linear approach to engineer a perfect solution by a small group of technocrats for “Zero-Covid” could result in a world separated and divided with a potential mental and a physical health pandemic and a collapsed economy according to the Great Barrington Declaration presented by Martin Kuldorf of Harvard, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford and Jay Battacharya of Stanford -  https://gbdeclaration.org/.  

My cognitive dissonance is a result of being mindful with my subconscious mind confused with subtle awareness of the gaps in the data, narratives counter to the common knowledge that every intervention has both positive and adverse effects - and especially censorship of experts and leading academics in places like Stanford, Harvard and Oxford.  

If they were silenced - these leading institutions who educated many who contributed significantly to every sphere of the modern techno-industrial complex, have lost their credibility.  

Having experienced how censorship hurt societies over a lifetime, I view that as oppression.   

My critical thinking questions are;

- who decides what should be censored?

- what are their vested interests?

That is why I wonder whether it was panic driven politicians, technocrats and decision makers had been taken over by their SuperEgo – perhaps stuck in state of self-critical fear to find a perfect solution at any cost or was it driven by vested interests and profit?.    

It seemed that most politicians - whether it was Macron of France, Trump and Biden of US, Arden of New Zealand, Morrison of Australia and some state premiers, Merkel and then Scholz of Germany, Schallenberg of Austria, Bennet of Israel, Trudeau of Canada and the 'global experts' along with the media, who were driving the narrative were not open to a whole-brained holistic approach to consider the entire ecosystem of causes and effects - the positive and adverse impacts of interventions and mandates, as any discourse counter to the 'certainty' narrative were censored.   

These politicians leave a legacy of this confusion, divided families, communities and nations, where people lost their livelihoods - demonizing those who decided to exercise their free will for whatever reason not to take the therapeutic intervention.

Trudeau took it to another level counting on the support of the majority who 'agreed' by calling a snap election in the middle of the pandemic, which did not go well as he expected. 

All this will be a part of a sad chapter in the history of the democratic world. 

Losing Credibility and Erosion of Confidence

Is it a wonder that people's confidence in important institutions like public health, mainstream media and government and politics in general have eroded?  

This is way more troublesome than the technocrats driving the narrative calling and censoring dissenting views, novel ideas and questioning - 'dangerous'. 

In fact, so many of us were driven to alternate media to be entertained from the ridiculous to the more reasonable conspiracy theories confusing the situation even more, as when there are gaps in information in the mainstream, most human minds will find ways to fill them.  

When in Doubt Have a Conversation

When in doubt there must be conversation. It is alleged that conversations were shut down - when leading US public health policy and decision maker Francis Collins, Director of National Institute of Health wrote to Dr. Anthony Fauci about the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration; 

"This proposal from the three fringe epidemiologists . . . seems to be getting a lot of attention – and even a co-signature from Nobel Prize winner Mike Leavitt at Stanford. There needs to be a quick and devastating published take down of its premises,” Dr. Collins wrote. “Is it underway?” (2)

This can be compared to William Sullivan - FBI's head of internal intelligence telling J. Edgar Hoover in 1963 that Martin Luther King, after what Sullivan calls a "...powerful and demagogic speech I have a Dream makes him the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation....". (3)

That had dire consequences for Martin Luther King, many African Americans and the United States of America.

Reasonable Conversations, Critical Thinking and Honoring People to do the Right Thing

It is through reasonable conversations, entertaining a myriad of views on the entire system can we gather information in a holistic way in a VUCA situation. 

Critical thinking processes can be then applied to assess the pros and cons of the rules and mandates made based on research, facts, who is promoting and profiting by them by putting things onto context and perspective.

Ideally this process will not be politicized and unfold in this manner; 

- The experts first come together with scientific consensus    (which is an ongoing dynamic process based on research and feedback).

- Then policy makers and regulators advice the politicians who have a pulse on the people and ground realities. 

- Make informed decisions, set public health regulations and  enforce them without politicking, fear mongering and separating people in irresponsible ways.   

The above is a dynamic circular process with feedback loops.

Governments will involve the people; keeping us informed that in a VUCA situation with a moving target, there are no easy answers and perfect solutions, so goal posts may change along the way. 

That way people can be accorded the dignity to take personal responsibility with informed consent to take necessary action - to protect the most vulnerable and keep each other safe in true partnership with the governments.

Do not take my word for it

The pandemic focused a light on the health care industry, the same way climate change brings the oil and agri industry into the limelight.  The arms industry protects this status quo.  

I am not saying do not believe governments or the media as we have to have anchors and foundations of systems in place for a society to feel safe and thrive.  

All I am saying is to mindfully listen to your intuition too, to stop and think critically before taking action.  

Media and propaganda can create a mass psychosis which can hurt humanity to add the the suffering of life (4).  We have history of mass hysteria with religious crusades, witch hunts, fascism etc.. driven through propaganda and we need not have added a pandemic to it.   

Many governments who are supposed to represent the people are now representing the vested interests of their funders and campaign financiers - the corporate world who promote a CERTAINTY narrative.  That makes 'we the people' vulnerable (5)

Therefore, let us learn to stop our thoughts mindfully to listen to our intuition and when there is a dissonance;  think critically, do the research and find out for our selves to take responsibility for our decisions.

In the case of the pandemic, history will judge this “Terminal Case of Certainty” as Covid has been a lesson of humility for humanity to realize the VUCA nature of life.      

At this stage, as the judgements and divisions continue, I can only make a wish for our humanity based on Metta and Karuna - loving kindness and compassion; 

May humanity heal from the separation, anger, anxiety and fear that has been created through this pandemic. 

May humanity transcend the “Terminal Case of Certainty” to live wisely in an impermanent, nuanced world with love, compassion and joy.

May humanity find inner peace through a mindfulness practice to thrive and flourish in an imperfect world.

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"By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”  The Yoga Sutras. Patanjali, Book 1, Sutra 33

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 (1) My previous blog goes delves on this topic as we realize the brain is much more complex than depicting as left and right sides yet it serves our purpose here. https://lalithanandagunaratne.blogspot.com/2021/12/grace-and-equanimity-in-uncertain-world.html

(2) Wall Street Journal -  https://www.wsj.com/articles/fauci-collins-emails-great-barrington-declaration-covid-pandemic-lockdown-11640129116

(3) The Washington Post - https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/mlks-speech-attracted-fbis-intense-attention/2013/08/27/31c8ebd4-0f60-11e3-8cdd-bcdc09410972_story.html

(4) https://lalithanandagunaratne.blogspot.com/2018/03/the-illusion-of-self.htm

(5) Bill Moyers - United States of ALEC https://vimeo.com/50350750

Saturday, 11 December 2021

Grace and Equanimity in an Uncertain World: Harmonizing the Left and Right Brains

The human being’s primal instinct is for self-preservation. Basic emotions like fear, worry, disgust, anger and even jealousy ensured that we did not get eaten by a predator, fall off a cliff, eat poison, protected the offspring so we are all here today.    

That survival has required both the left and right brain combining our reptilian, limbic (emotional) and the neocortex (the executive function) to work in harmony.  However, to survive in the modern techno industrial world, the human has been forced to move towards the left part of the brain.  

Even though the brain is extremely complex and hard to distinguish in a simplistic way - new findings about our cognition and the Dorsal (above and below the midbrain), Ventral (the lower part of the brain and body) and Daniel Kahneman's writing on fast and the slow brain - Harvard Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor has brought the attention back to the left and right brains.

Her latest work shows how the left brain has dominated us in the 20th century, which informs how the modern world evolved socially, economically, politically with science and technology driving a consumerist world. 

Left brain thinks linearly in the past and future tense, structured and certain, analytical, detail oriented, seeks differences, happy to separate, critical and judgmental, can be fear-based and righteous.  This is essential to survive or even thrive in the modern-techno-industrial world.

When anything unfamiliar and uncertain appears, the emotional side of the left brain sends us into a fight-flight-play dead-fear response, arousing the sympathetic nervous system – which is reptilian and primal.  This is what we see in the global fear psychosis - driven by governments and media in the last 2 years, paralyzing and separating people in the efforts to stop the pandemic.

Psychologist and Conflict Mediator, Marshall Rosenberg observes that the left- brain dominance of the modern human has resulted in the following;

“Most of us have been educated from birth to compete, judge, demand, diagnose, - to think and communicate in terms of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ with people. At best this way of thinking and speaking hinders communication, creating misunderstanding and frustration, at its worst - it leads to violence”.

Anxiety and fear can trap us in the left emotional brain – to judge and demand in terms of what is right and wrong as Rosenberg states.  This fear psychosis separates and creates conflict, as we see today.

Many today are stuck in the sympathetic nervous system where cholesterol triggers stress hormone such as cortisol and adrenaline  – to fight or flee and worse still, it stops the blood flow to the digestive system. 

The emotional and physical fallout from the allostatic load buildup of stress during the last 2 years can manifest disease and a mental health epidemic into the future.  

The Three Arrows

The Buddhist parable of two arrows illustrates how we can get a hold of our emotions as it triggers.   

We have no control over the first arrow that triggers an emotion as it comes from the outside, yet when we are not mindful and unaware, the second arrow hits, giving rise to an emotion(s).  

 

We do have a choice with the second arrow though, as we can respond rather than react by catching it before it hits the ego driven emotion.   

An elegant way to catch the second arrow is by becoming mindfully aware – take a deep breath and say ‘observe’ to stop the emotion - the feeling that arises.  This pause creates space to connect the mind and body to become present, rather than stay on auto-pilot to get caught up in the arising emotion of anxiety, fear, anger or frustration.  

With skill and mindfulness, we can pause to move ourselves in a few seconds to the right brain to catch the second arrow, to acknowledge the arising emotion, but not react to it on auto-pilot.  This space enables us to become open, fearless and resilient to receive even a harsh criticism with grace, put it in perspective and respond. 

If we allow the second arrow to penetrate and the emotion remains, it could open us to a third arrow - a mood we may fall into from ruminating on the emotion.

It Takes Practice

With practice we can learn the skill to stop a feeling - the emotion and the arising thought when the first arrow hits – the trigger - by simply taking a deep breath and saying ‘observe’.  

That may take 5 seconds to break the emotional trigger and the ego getting dragged into the arising sentiment.  Those 5 seconds are invaluable to gain the space, pause and respond with awareness rather than react on auto-pilot, which may burn bridges to be regretted later.

Focus on the Breath

This is not easy to do.  It requires us to learn to become aware of the breath at the heat of the moment, especially as our power is being taken away. 

Like anything else, it takes a commitment to a regular meditation practice (focus on the breath is the easiest) to become mindful and present.

Focus on self to go inward to become familiar with the busy mind and learn to manage it by moving from thought to awareness.   

Taking a deep breath with an intention to let go of trying to fix things, enables us to move to the right side of the brain to become expansive, open to possibilities and fearless - to not react to the immediate triggers, find space and some freedom to put things in perspective to respond . 

Pandemic Response

As we work through the pandemic, the ‘cognitive dissonance’ arising from confusing messages from the experts on one end, conspiracy theorists on the other and everyone in between - as goal posts change, can render us helpless in fear to be stuck in the left brain.  In times of uncertainty, our mental faculties can distort the realities to lead us into despair. 

In desperation, to make sense of the dissonance, we seek anchors by finding scapegoats to blame.  Anyone who seems outside the mainstream narrative becomes a threat and lines of separation are drawn between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – this self righteousness hinder communications that can lead to conflict. 

When we understand how our brains and minds work, and learn a time-tested practice as mindfulness, we can be more skillful in dealing with such an untenable situation.

Balancing and Harmonizing the Left and the Right Brain

In her new book Whole Brain Living, Bolte-Taylor reveals to a left brained world the more expansive holistic right side of the brain, which thinks experientially in the present moment.  It is fearless, loves unconditionally, is kind and compassionate, flexible and resilient, creative, seeks similarities to connect in the way we experience our behaviour;

“If we live with the belief that there is only one group of cells that process our emotions, our mixed emotions can be confusing.   At a neuroanatomical level, when we experience conflicting feelings, it is because we have two groups of emotional cells that are separate from each other.” 

We have a choice to harmonize the two brains by taking a deep breath to pause and say 'observe', to gain some space to think critically.  

When we take responsibility for ourselves and open our minds to balance the left and right brains, we can become fearless to let go of the differences - compromise, to be gracious, open to consider another person's point of view.

The Evolving Brain

Bolte Taylor cautions us;

“Even though from an evolutionary point of view, our brain is an amazing neurological achievement, our brain is far from being a finished product.” 

Her statement - ‘humanity exists in an ongoing state of evolution’ should humble us to realize our limitations.

An intentional mindfulness practice can help us evolve as we manage our thoughts and narratives to impact our neurological processes.

Jill Bolte Taylor also points to mindfulness-based tools to harmonize the left and right brain.  This important and unusual research and findings can help us to change the way we are dealing with our life's challenges including the current pandemic. 

Otherwise, this pandemic of the virus may turn into a pandemic of mental health and other illnesses.

The 'gaslighting'(1) that happens with confusing narratives - the see-saw of changing rules and mandates, as decision makers are also trying their best to stem the pandemic, is playing havoc with people’s minds with doubt and fear.

The simple mindfulness practice to focus on the breath and say 'observe' stops the thoughts to move to awareness and knowing – to gain the space to invoke the right brain for balance and harmony.   

This is the way we may find that inner power and resilience by enacting the whole brain to deal with the many traumas that we face today and in our lifetime with equanimity.

 I end with a poem inspiring us to honour ourselves by Derek Walcott:


 "Give back the heart to itself

To the stranger who has loved you all your life

Whom you have ignored for another 

Who knows you by heart"

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 (1) Gaslighting - a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator is trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions