Thursday, August 23, 2012

The End Is Always Nigh: Analysing Doomsday Mania

The clock is ticking. Expectations are high. The much-heralded date of 21st December 2012 is less than four months away. A significant number of people genuinely believe that this is the day the world is going to end.

Exactly how it’s going to end is a matter of much debate. Is Jesus going to pop in to battle the antichrist? Are aliens going to invade? Is a giant asteroid going to destroy the planet? A timely super volcano eruption? Global societal collapse? A nuclear apocalypse? There are no shortage of theories in circulation; a number of them clearly utter nonsense, while others are more unnervingly feasible.

But apocalypticism (fixation with the end of the world) is nothing new. Mankind has been convinced the world is approaching an imminent and catastrophic end for thousands of years. And we’re still here.

Any historian will tell you that Christians have been feverishly anticipating armageddon since around the time the religion first started. That’s a pretty long history of disappointment, littered with countless failed predictions, yet they’re more ardent than ever. 

(Incidentally, here’s a countdown of some of the most notable failed doomsday predictions, from the Millerites, Mormons and Heaven’s Gate cult to Nostradamus and Y2K. Worth noting that scientists and scholars have made more than their fair share of failed predictions as well).

The current intensification of doomsday mania is largely centred around the fast-approaching end date of the Mayan Long Count calendar. Most people actually know very little about it and tend to buy into the media hype, oblivious to the fact the Maya left NO prediction about what would happen on or around 2012. Experts are adamant that there’s no evidence that the Maya believed the end of their Long Count calendar would spell the end of the world. When the Long Count calendar ends...well, it simply resets again. Like most calendars do. The doomsday scenario that’s been tacked onto it appears to be an urban myth of the highest degree.

The psychology of apocalypticism and our fixation with imagined catastrophes fascinates me. I’m not sure how much research has been done in this area; I’ll have to dig deeper than a brief google search. What follows is my own analysis of what compels us to create, believe in and morbidly fixate on doomsday scenarios. 

I believe doomsday mania is largely a projection of our own deepest fears and anxieties; which, as with most fears and anxieties, is ultimately rooted in fear of our own mortality.

This innate, primordial fear is basically hard-wired into us. The so-called reptilian brain is the oldest part of the human brain. It evolved with the primary function of ensuring physical survival and protecting us from harm. The reptilian brain is the seat of our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism and is always on the look out for potential threats to our survival. It came in pretty handy in prehistoric times when there were predators aplenty and simply staying alive was something of a challenge. These days, however (in certain parts of the world at least), we can step out of the front door without having to worry about our immediate survival. Yet the reptilian brain is still just as active now as it was back then. 

It’s a part of our physiology and psychology that’s designed to be forever on the look-out for threats. We may experience this as a persistent low-level anxiety in the periphery of our awareness. Because our physical safety is rarely in immediate danger, this anxiety is often projected onto other things, including relationships and social situations. Or indeed any number of the invented, conceptualised fears we might harbour in our minds; the myriad ‘what ifs?’ that we take to be reality, but which in fact are mere fantasy. As Mark Twain once remarked, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Ahh, the mind. It picks up on the persistent fear signals of the reptilian brain and tries to make sense of the input. If it can’t (and often there’s little reason for the signals the reptilian brain is sending out -- it’s just doing so because that’s what it’s wired to do) then it manufactures all manner of stories and narratives around that fear in an attempt to process reality. Its intent is noble; it’s trying to keep us safe. But in the absence of any legitimate threats to our survival, the mind gets us lost in never-ending fabrications and mental conceptualisations, which actually distort our perception of reality.

I first experienced the mind’s amazing ability to fabricate stories to explain the input it’s receiving many years ago when I was on holiday with my parents and sister as a child. I was fast asleep and my sister, bless her, decided it was time I woke up. She awoke me by getting a facial spritz spray and spraying it on my face (as you do!). I was in the middle of a dream at the time, but my outer senses obviously registered the sound and sensation of the spray. What happened was my mind incorporated the sound into my dream and I suddenly saw a can of coca cola being opened. In other words, my brain received an input (the sound of the facial spritz) but it didn’t know what it was, so it created a fabrication to explain the input -- a coke can being opened! 

The funny thing is, that’s what the mind is doing all the time. It’s receiving input and trying to match it to past experience. If it can’t process the input based on memory and knowledge, it simply spins a story based on the material it has at hand. It projects a superimposition over reality; something we then mistake as BEING reality. This is going on all the time! Most the time we don’t experience reality as it is, we experience it as we think it is.

It’d be easy to digress at this point, but bear with me.

Basically, as I’ve explained, we are hard-wired to feel our survival is always under threat. This primal fear is constantly being generated by a part of our brain that’s designed to keep us on our toes and on the look out for possible danger everywhere. If there does happen to be a legitimate danger, then the mechanism is fulfilling its function and we can respond appropriately. But if there’s no actual threat (and most of the time there isn’t), then the mind tends to fabricate reasons to explain why we’re experiencing this fear.

This includes, I venture, the notion that the world is approaching an imminent and horrific end. 

It doesn’t matter whether the evidence supports this story or not. Most of us invest a lot of our sense of identity in our mental narratives. We’re all religious whether we know it or not. Our object of worship is the stories in our minds, our mental maps of ‘reality’. That’s why people are often literally willing to die to uphold their beliefs and viewpoints, and why so few people are genuinely willing to question their thoughts and beliefs.

I believe our obsession with doomsday, armageddon and mass annihilation is a projection of our deepest fears and anxieties and an extreme manifestation of our fear of mortality. It’s not something I see as particularly rational or likely. The Earth has been here a pretty long time and is likely to be around for a while yet. 

This is NOT to say that we’re not faced with multiple and immense problems and challenges. We’ve reached a point in history where we face escalating issues on a number of fronts: ecologically, socially, politically and economically. Our species’ current mode of operating is largely responsible for these problems and in order to solve them, it will necessitate change at a fundamental level.

I know only too well that to sit down and start analysing all of mankind’s problems can lead to a sense of hopelessness and pessimism. There’s no denying that we’ve created a terrible mess. Yet each time we’ve been on the verge of immense catastrophe, something has happened to change the rules of the game. At our moments of greatest challenge, we often make our greatest breakthroughs: new innovations, new insights, new ways of doing things.

The human race rarely does things the easy way. We often have to be pushed to the brink before we’re forced to take stock of what we’re doing and why immediate change is necessary. But the breakthroughs come. When we’re shaken out of our slumber and forced out of our habitual reflex-response approach to living, we can be tremendously adaptable. Although mindsets are all too easily rigid and entrenched, consciousness is fluid and the ability to shift from one level of consciousness to another, particularly when forced by necessity, gives me cause for hope.

The world is not going to end on 21st December 2012. That’s my prediction, and I don’t often make them. But you can quote me on that. 

The world is going to keep spinning as it always does. Yes, these are turbulent times. But if you leaf through the pages of any history book you’ll reach the inescapable conclusion that the entirety of recorded history has been turbulent. In many of respects things are better now than they ever have been. 

As always, events come and go. Society changes and evolves. There’s an interplay of good and bad, and they always eventually balance each other out. That’s just the way life is. It all just happens; a continuous, spontaneous unfolding. 

My best advice is to let go of the mind’s fictional projections (particularly if they’re causing distress and misery, as they often do) and simply roll with life. Life takes care of itself, especially when we stop creating obstructions and just let it. I’ve never encountered a better approach to life than that offered by the Tao Te Ching. It advises us to let go of all concepts and to be open, relaxed, non-grasping and flexible, bending with the wind as and when it blows.

Life is really just lila, a play in consciousness. Without taking it too seriously, we can respond appropriately to the needs of each situation, using whatever abilities, skills and knowledge we have. In this way we can all contribute productively, particularly once we shift out of the overriding mentality of “what’s in it for me?” and instead focus on what we can give back to life. It’s so easy to get swept up by the dramas and strife and to project scenarios of doom and despair -- easy, but not exactly helpful. The secret to life is remaining in a state of peace and balance amidst its inevitable ups and downs. That’s our greatest gift to the world and the most resourceful state of mind we could possibly adopt. 

To be sure, no one can tell us what’s going to happen in the future. Maybe a giant comet will strike tomorrow and knock us all to oblivion? But why waste our precious, beautiful life worrying over imagined events? Stop, relax and enjoy life now! Ditch all that apocalyptic nonsense and just BE HERE NOW! It’s so easy to forget that, but it’s really the only way to live.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Trapped by the mind: A portrait of human insanity

In the last post I spoke about how easy it is to be totally consumed by the mundane and to lose ourselves in an endless sea of trivia and pointlessness; distraction after distraction after distraction.

What is it with the human race and our distractions? Why do we so always feel the need to distract ourselves from ourselves?

Part of it is no doubt a response to the stressful, turbulent, unbalanced and dysfunctional society we live in, a society that's almost totally cut off from the natural balance of life. We're all victims of the capitalist/rampant consumerist agenda; brought up and conditioned to feel dissatisfied with ourselves, to feel that we're not good enough as we are, that we're not whole and complete and that in order to be happy we need to accrue as much money as we can in order to buy a whole lot of crap we don't really need in a world that's alarmingly being stripped of its resources.

We're programmed to be unhappy. Perhaps that's why we spend so much time trying to escape the basic unease we feel within. Most people simply aren't comfortable in their own skin and accordingly find it exceedingly difficult to sit alone in a room without things to occupy themselves. As Blaise Pascal noted, this is the source of all humanity's problems.

I believe this is because we don't like to be alone with our thoughts. Many of us aren't even consciously aware of our inner monologue -- the never-ending stream of thoughts constantly flowing through our minds -- even though, for most of us, it's present almost every moment of our waking lives. The funny thing is, it's not so much us that's thinking these thoughts, for they can be difficult to control and predict, rather it's more like the thoughts are thinking us. They arise and subside, constantly rumbling away like a talk radio station we're tuned into and can't switch off.

Although generally mundane, many people's inner monologue is not a pleasant one: it often comprises a torrent of abuse and negativity, focussing on the very worst in life, perceiving problems where none exist and generally creating a whole lot of needless upset. Life is actually very simple, but the mind makes it into something ridiculously complex, embellishing it with so much needless dramas and stress. The inability to disengage from the babble of the inner monologue is a dreaful affliction.

I wonder if this is a defect of sorts at our current stage of evolution. It seems to me that we're a species with minds so over-developed and out-of-control that it's causing wide-scale insanity.

Our education system fails us on so many levels, not least because we're not taught how to deal with our thoughts, emotions and the content of our psyche. We're taught just about everything except ourselves, so we're left without a clue as to who or what we are. Our understanding of ourselves is based wholly upon assumption and misidentification. We form an image of ourselves in our minds, one that is totally arbitrary and ever-changing and yet which we construe as being 'us'.  It's usually quite a distorted and negative image. Our entire experience of reality, ourselves and others, is utterly distorted by our uncontrolled minds, which run rampant, causing unaccountable misery and suffering for ourselves and others.

This insanity can be seen all around us. You need only switch on the evening news to be reminded of the devastating effect of our individual and collective dysfunction. On a small scale it's reflected in dysfunctional relationships and our personal miseries (depression and anxiety are now pandemic in our culture, as well as anger and aggression) and on a larger scale it's evident in the corruption that's evident in virtually every organisation and institution, and most dramatically in wars, conflicts, genocide and terrorism. It's not a pretty picture, and it all stems from the mind, and from believing certain thoughts and beliefs.

The dysfunctions of the human mind are destroying us.

So what is the way out of this?

First of all, we need to stop trying to simply drown out the mind by losing ourselves in mundane and mind-numbing activities or behaviours. I mean, getting drunk might have the desired effect for a short space of time (it dulls and numbs the mind, often making us feel good), but it's not exactly a long-term solution. It does nothing to address the underlying problem and when the hangover hits you'll feel ten times worse than before. We've been playing out our addictions and compulsive behaviours for what seems like lifetimes. Surely we can see by now that THEY DON'T WORK.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. That might very well be the human race's epitath. Waking up to reality means finally acknowledging that what we're doing isn't working and that we need to stop doing it. Instead we need to do something else, something that might be radically different to what we've been accustomed to in the past.

If the problem is our mind distorting our perception of reality, then surely the solution must involve taking control of the mind? Until we learn to control our mind, we are controlled by it, and this results in the succession of nightmares the human race has created throughout history. No other species is as inherently destructive and as pathologically insane as the human race, because no other species has such an over-developed cognitive faculty. The solution, according to one Zen Master could be concisely summed up as: "no mind, no problem."

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The first step is always simply being aware and seeing things as they are. We can't solve a problem until we've first clearly identified that it is a problem. Denial is another defining human characteristic and it's incredibly hard to do anything so long as we're intent on denying the reality of the situation. Denial keeps us entrapped in the mind-created prison of our personal and collective suffering.

When we're willing to look at the situation openly, honestly and without whatever old baggage, beliefs and dogmas we've been clinging onto, we can finally see things as they are, and only then are we in a position to do something about it. Freedom is then within our grasp.