Born to Angst

Studying, as I have been, the genetic bases for human behavior have me thinking about my own countenance and foibles. The probability I was, at least in part, born to be who I am is worth contemplating even as I recognize familial and cultural nurturing might have something to do with it. I think about my parents and grandparents, assess their personalities and find that some of us have anxious natures: even (or perhaps especially) when things are going smoothly there is a tendency to worry, to think of worst case scenarios, to dread what might happen next, even though, historically, the family has lived in amazingly good fortune.

So, if I assume, as I must, that I’ve inherited the Angst Gene there appears to be little I can do about it. And, since I haven’t suffered any health issues to this point like ulcers or need for psychological counseling, I guess I’ll just sit back, minimize my worrying as best I can in the realization this is simply who I am.

Evolutionary Aesthetics

I’ve been wondering how we’ve come to associate aesthetic values the way we do. I’ve been reading that our human nature, our genetic inheritance, has, over the millennia, found beauty in those things that reflect or resemble qualities necessary for basic survival like verdant planes, water sources, food animals in visual representations, the social bonding realized in sharing structured, repetitive rhythms musically and sculptural representations of fecundity and animal nobility.

I get this, you know, but now I’m reading that the impulse to create art was, and still is I guess, a mating tactic, a way to impress prospective sexual partners with the superior quality of one’s genetic make-up and intelligence. The idea does seem to explain, to some extent the artistic temperament, the volatile and delicate ego that seems characteristic of those engaged in art-making.

Being of a reserved nature myself, I’m good with leaving the romantic intrigues to the more flamboyant among us..

Violence

I’ve been reading that, by nature of our very existence at this point in time, most everyone has been endowed with the genetic propensity to behave violently. Given the necessary provocation, or not, our ancestral drive for survival has instilled the will and desire toward physical aggression in the interests of protecting kith and kin on the positive side and for some of us who may be leaning toward the psychopathic, rape and kill for personal gain. Violence may be the prevailing characteristic of humankind given our histories of Wild West lawlessness, clannish feuds and nearly constant warring.

Passivity is, I guess, a logical reaction against having to deal with any sort of revenge perpetrated upon us by survivors of aggressive behavior on our part, who, then, would have to be back-watching for retributive response from us, which would likely create a stand-off and perhaps perpetual distrust, which would place everyone in a fairly constant state of tension.

So, I’m sticking with passivity; I’m anxious enough as it is.

Samadhi

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of Samadhi: the realization of oneness, that through focused attention, subject and object merge, which, I guess, means ‘me’, as subject, losing myself in identification with the object of attention, whatever that may be.

The idea seems appropriate to consider these days with my mind soaring a million miles an hour between thoughts of what just happened as well as those of the more distant past and thoughts of what will soon happen and what I should anticipate occurring in the more distant future, most of which being of a personal nature causing anguish to ‘me’.

So, I think what I need to do is take some time regularly, multiple times a day, to focus my attention on a singularity, breathe deep, let the proliferation of thoughts, which will arrive, pass through until I achieve a sense of a much desired peace. I’m pretty sure I can do this. I just need to find an appropriate object on which to focus.

The Limitations of Language and Memory

I’ve been thinking lately that language is a limiting and essentially inadequate means of describing experience. (As I think about this it occurs to me I’ve probably thought this very thing before; in fact, I doubt I’ve had a truly original thought anytime recently).

Anyway, language may be the only way of describing experience, but the descriptions rendered no matter the mastery one may have of the written word will fall well short of sufficiently describing the color and complexities of sensual experience.

Roland Barthes, The late French literary theorist, apparently said that man does not exist prior to language. If I might be so bold as to contradict such a noted scholar, my experience suggests to me such an idea is nonsense. Such a statement would have to mean my colorful and complex sensual experiences can only occur to my conscious self in the form of language; that until language supervenes upon my colorful and complex sensual experiences that my most wonderful remembrances don’t exist.

But, then, maybe my memory is going, I am aging after all; brain cells are being lost. Still, the visual imagery is there and doesn’t seem to require captions. I’m thinking language is over-rated. It simply is unable to account for the ineffable.

Nature/Nurture

I’ve been reading lately, about the on-going controversy regarding the development of the human persona. There seems to be, among psychologists, a never-ending debate as to whether we inherit, genetically, the intellectual tools to decipher, through our senses, the world around us or whether we arrive on this earth without a clue.

Those on the ‘nurture’ side of the argument tend to view the human intellect as being formed for the most part by the culture in which we grow up. The values we hold dear, our sense of place in the world, our spiritual nature are written on the blank slate of our being by our unifying culture.

The ‘nature’ folks, on the other hand, site the cross-cultural similarities humankind shares. Western cultures, primitive tribal groups and most all cultures between are amazingly similar in how social relationships function, the significance of spirituality, development of art expression and the use of moral taboos. The cultural commonalities would suggest the pre-natal slate was anything but blank.

On the ‘nature’ side I suspect all of human kind views itself as special beings of superior intelligence within our respective worlds which would seem to suggest a potential unifier; something to bring us all together; to encourage cooperation. I guess it must be the ‘nurture’ aspect of our being that creates divisiveness, religious conflicts, ideological differences, a misplaced sense of superiority over those unlike us.

I guess who we are is a bit of both nature and nurture; it would seem to me a push toward the nature side would be beneficial to all.

The Dangers of Religious Fundamentalism

I’ve been reading that one of the primary drivers of religious fundamentalism is the sense of feeling under siege: the opposition, anyone holding a perspective contrary to the orthodox view, is identified not simply as apostate but as the enemy: immoral and evil.

With the firm belief God is on their side, fundamentalists embrace a world view that may include cosmic battle against the forces of evil.  Fundamentalists convince themselves they are the chosen ones of God which sometimes leads to nationalistic fervor and an aggressive political stance and may even include the idea of replacing secular government and constitution with the tenets of their religious beliefs. They evangelize, convinced anyone not a believer is doomed to eternal Hell, which I suppose might be considered somewhat altruistic ( the evangelizing that is), if the rigidity of their demanded beliefs weren’t quite so outrageous and their methods of conversion less oppressive. These folks take their sacred writings literally, a gift from God, inerrant, any metaphorical allusions lost on their determined black/white perspective. So, the fundamentalists flex their muscles in tense confrontation, waiting for the sign from God signaling Armageddon.

Whew! This all might make exciting TV drama if it weren’t so real.

 

 

 

Where’s the Nuance?

I’ve been reading about the most incredible difficulties those individuals of unorthodox thinking had around the turn of the 19th century (that is 1890’s to 1910’s or so). Public awareness of ideas questioning religious dogmas, racial inequities, subjugation of women and the like, often resulted in ostracization for any mindful individual who voiced such thoughts. Condemnation by a powerful fundamentalist clergy and demonizing by the mainstream press were powerful disincentives to speak out and those courageous enough to do so were often censored or ignored.

It must have been really hard to have a creative mind back then. New ideas were often seen as blasphemous or heretical by the majority; absolute truth ruled the day and made it easier, I suppose, for those who didn’t want to think too hard about the big questions.

These days it seems the majorities, consuming as they do their preferred sound bites, butt heads pretty much on a daily basis. Knowing their own truth leaves small room for considering the complexities, gray areas or subtleties of today’s issues, leaving free thinkers without much of a voice.

Some things never change, I guess, but resistance to free thought can be pretty disturbing sometimes.

What Hell is Like

I’ve been thinking lately about the implications spelled out in Dante’s Inferno and the pre-occupation of the middle-agers in one’s ultimate demise and the potential horrors of Hell.

In the book, Dante tells about being guided by the poet Virgil into the underworld, which is this huge pit containing the souls of all the people who have died and been found guilty of evil doings without having done anything, penitence-wise, that would have maybe gotten them to a more favorable eternal location. The first level of the underworld is for people who haven’t been baptized and, basically, all they have to do is wait around forever, but as Dante and Virgil go down deeper and deeper they discover each successive level holds souls who have been more evil than the last and are made to suffer worse conditions.

On level five heretics are encased in fiery graves and watched over by the Furies and Medusa. On level seven violent souls are submerged in a river of boiling blood and watched over by the Minotaur who, when they come up for air, shoves them back down.  When the poets get to the very bottom they find Satan encased in ice and unable to move, so they climb up his huge body and escape from Hell.

It’s pretty clear Dante must have thought about Hell a lot.  The amount of detail he goes in to is amazing. I wonder if he felt guilty about something or if he was just trying to warn people to walk the straight and narrow.

Anyway, I think people today think differently about what Hell will be like than they did in Dante’s day. It probably will have more to do with the loss of mobile communication devices and reality TV.

circle seven 3

Spiritual Common Ground

Having spent some time recently visiting a Christian pilgrimage site of some considerable significance to believers (and history buffs as well), it became apparent to me the penitents amongst the crowds stood out. It was pretty clear there is a deep emotional engagement, a heart-felt belief in the Christian dogma many of the pilgrims feel and adhere to.

It got me thinking about the sort of commitment other spiritual engagements require of their followers if their followers can be expected to remain followers. Other than Reformed Judaism which appears to be based pretty much on cultural tradition most other religious endeavors expect, if not an emotional commitment, an intellectual discipline whereby the metaphysical can be approached, the value of which for the honest participant is cultivation of a groundedness that is helpful in seeing through and beyond the petty and not so petty distractions life presents with considerable constancy.

Problems tend to arise when differences in doctrinal beliefs lead followers to deny the legitimacy of other traditions. It would be good, I think, if more adherents would focus on the common rather than the different and set aside the arrogance of an assumed superiority.