Evolution of Consciousness

Given my interest in natural order and patterns (see Defining Li), it may come as no surprise that I am intrigued by the similarities between (1) the development of individual consciousness over a lifetime and (2) the evolution of human consciousness over many thousands of years. As we mature from infants to adults, our brains go through stages of development that parallel the evolution of our species from primitive to more sophisticated. This parallel offers a kind of symmetry between individual and species development, one that connects us intimately with our own history as human beings. Whether we realize it or not, on an individual level, we each experience a highly-compressed version of human history, and we experience it through the development of our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.

Consider the pre-verbal, selfish, and often aggressive nature of babies. Is it possible that infant consciousness mirrors that of early humans? Babies are more adorable than cavemen, but it is only their relative size and helplessness that allow them to be so. If babies had the size, strength, and mobility of adults, they would be absolutely terrifying when upset, much like Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Now, imagine an entire community of these infant-adults, and you get a glimpse of how brutal and chaotic early human existence might have been.

These parallels continue from infancy into childhood and adolescence. Even with the development of language, the underlying narcissism and brutality do not necessarily disappear. Children eventually learn to follow rules and care for others, but as we all know, children can still be cruel, and not only during infancy. Much the same is true for human cultures and civilizations. In either case, despite the maturation or evolution of our brain structures, the development of more sophisticated perspectives and values can come very late or not at all. All we have to do is watch the news to see countless examples of lingering selfishness, aggression, and cruelty… even among adults in “civilized” societies.

As we move through childhood and into adulthood, our brains develop greater complexity, and we are exposed to the lessons of family, culture, human history, and personal experience. Through these lessons, some of us begin to learn and practice more sophisticated behaviors, and we tend to seek out others who share our perspectives. These pockets of sophistication may be rare in grade school or even high school, but they become more common with age. In the adult world, there are all levels of sophistication representing all kinds of perspectives, but narcissism and brutality still exist.

Human evolution has also included pockets of sophistication for thousands of years, and overall, these pockets appear to have grown more prevalent over the centuries, culminating in our modern human world. Unfortunately, whether we are talking about individuals or the species as a whole, sophistication is neither universal nor inevitable, at least not yet, and pockets of cruelty and selfishness remain common. The development of consciousness is a rocky road, and humanity still has a long way to go.

In exploring this idea further, it may be useful to consider the example of high school. Within most communities of teenagers, selfishness and aggression remain common traits, and this creates a hostile environment dominated by various kinds of bullies and their followers. High school is a primitive world, but unlike early childhood, it does include noticeable and ever-expanding pockets of sophistication. Indeed, the brutality of this world may actually provide a catalyst for individual growth, especially among those who are not in power. Unfortunately, high school can also provide reinforcement for those who are able to dominate, potentially trapping these individuals in a violent and narcissistic existence.

One thing that stands in the way of growth is the tendency for people to be drawn toward the norm. This is much like the statistical concept of regression toward the mean. When there is a dominant majority representing a certain set of perspectives and values, others will tend to be drawn toward those values. They “regress” away from the periphery and toward the norm, as if drawn by gravity. It is hard to resist this gravitational pull and stand firm as an outlier, especially during high school, because teens typically lack stable personal identities. In many ways, finding that identity is what being a teen is all about. At a time of life when primitive traits probably represent the majority, sophistication is represented mostly in the smaller pockets, the outliers. In such an environment, it is not surprising that many individuals would be unwilling to venture away from the primitive majority, even if it is a source of suffering. But some do resist the pull and venture out, and over time, these individuals create centers of gravity of their own.

By the time any generation gets to adulthood, these small pockets of sophistication have grown and combined into a larger segment of the population. As the primitive majority loses members, its gravitational pull diminishes, and acceptance for primitive behaviors declines. There is still a tendency for regression toward the mean, but there are now multiple centers of gravity to attract the lost and isolated. Primitive groups still exist, but their dominant status slips away as they lose their majority. Some members of these primitive groups may eventually feel drawn to evolve themselves. Others may cling to their primitive culture, even as it shrinks into obscurity.

Naturally, all of these trends will depend on the larger cultural context, and in some cultures or societies, primitive traits may remain dominant even in adulthood. This is the nature of human evolution, as well as individual development. Some people push forward into new human potentials, creating new centers of gravity (i.e. more sophisticated behavioral norms), while others remain closer to our primitive origins.

At this point, we must be careful not to confuse technological progress with sophistication, lest we be deceived into a false sense of superiority. After all, technological advances do not necessarily lead to a reduction in selfishness or aggression, and many industrialized nations, including the United States, do not necessarily represent the highest state of human evolution. In fact, our tendencies toward individualism, competition, consumerism, and warfare suggest that we are nowhere near the pinnacle of human consciousness. We may have pockets of great sophistication, but as a whole, we still demonstrate strong tendencies toward primitive behaviors.

Despite all of our limitations, I still have faith that humanity is on an upward trajectory toward greater levels of sophistication, even if it sometimes happens slowly and inconsistently. Every time we reveal our darkest potentials, it seems that we also reveal our outrage. Hopefully, this means that lessons are being learned. Hopefully, our primitive behaviors are serving a purpose for our species as a whole. Hopefully, we will continue to embrace a shift away from aggression and narcissism and toward an existence that minimizes suffering for all.

Defining Li

Li CharacterI like the idea that there is a natural order or beauty within the apparent chaos of life and the world. We simply have to learn to see it. The Chinese word for this organic order is “li”, and it can be seen easily in the patterns of snowflakes, frost, waves, and sand dunes. Li, however, is more than just interesting patterns. Li is a universal phenomenon that exists all around us. It appears on the grand scale of spiral galaxies, on the miniscule scale of atoms, and across vastly different scales (e.g. the parallel structures of atoms and solar systems). It even appears in abstract realms such as relationships, cultures, cycles, and systems. Life itself may be the most amazing example. The patterns of li are everywhere.

Philosopher and author Alan Watts (1915-1973) described li this way:

Though the Tao is wu-tse (nonlaw), it has an order or pattern which can be recognized clearly but not defined by the book because it has too many dimensions and too many variables. This kind of order is the principle of li. . . . Li may therefore be understood as organic order, as distinct from mechanical or legal order, both of which go by the book. Li is the asymmetrical, nonrepetitive, and unregimented order which we find in the patterns of moving water, the forms of trees and clouds, of frost crystals on the window, or the scattering of pebbles on beach sand. . . . As soon as this beauty is pointed out it is immediately recognized, though we cannot say just why it appeals to us. When aestheticians and art critics try to explain it by showing works of art with Euclidean diagrams superimposed on them–supposedly to demonstrate elegance of proportion or rhythm–they simply make fools of themselves. Bubbles do not interest one merely because they congregate in hexagons or have measurable surface tensions. Geometrization always reduces natural form to something less than itself, to an oversimplification and rigidity which screens out the dancing curvaceousness of nature.
Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way, 1975, pp. 45-46

Because it is a naturally occurring phenomenon, li does not require our intervention or control. Nature dances, and li is the beauty of that dance. As natural beings, humans have an innate ability to experience li, but we must first learn to be present and open to reality. I’m not talking about the over-processed reality in our heads, but rather the raw reality as it comes to us through our senses. So often, our rational minds get in the way, and so we must learn to turn down the volume on our thoughts. Only then will li become fully apparent.

Animals don’t need help with this, because they are not burdened with our reasoning abilities. As a result, they exist wholly within the patterns of li. Their relationships, interactions, and patterns of behavior are li. Human behavior gets hung up on mental constructs like expectations and control, and we lose contact with natural order. Through our thoughts and efforts, we actually destroy li. Imagine trying to intervene as a snowflake is forming, trying to make it turn out a certain way, and you will get an idea of the danger and futility of trying too hard. Li doesn’t need us to make it happen. In fact, it often can’t tolerate our efforts. It just needs us to participate in life and allow it to happen.

If li still seems difficult to grasp, consider a few more examples, and maybe it will become more clear. Li is the smoke of a candle spiraling and folding in on itself. Li is dust in a sunbeam. Li is clear water rippling in the wind on a sunny day. Li is sparkles of sunlight dancing across the surface of a body of water. Li is the northern lights, sunrises and sunsets, and the starry sky. Li is waterfalls, rapids, leaves on trees, and mountain ranges. Li is storms. Li is all weather. Li is the patterns within and across lifespans. Li is the chemistry between two people. Li is the cycle of life and death. Li is ecosystems. Li is solar systems. Li is also “the zone” experienced by athletes. Li is anytime we feel truly connected and caught up in the flow of life.

I will not speculate about how or why li occurs, because I do not know with any certainty the answers to those questions. My goal is simply to point out that li does occur, that it does so with great abundance, and that it is always available to us… as long as we don’t get in the way.

A Formula for Suffering (Part 3)

This three-part series uses mathematics, specifically algebra, as a metaphor for exploring and illustrating the relationships between the aspects of human experience that relate to suffering. In Part 2, we consolidated our previous equations into a single formula, which I dubbed the Unified Theory of Human Suffering:

(14) Suffering = (Feeling x Control / Trust) + (Stress / Coping)

This formula says that, if we hold feelings as a constant, suffering goes up with increases in control and stress, but it goes down with increases in trust and coping. Because feeling, control, and stress are always present in our lives (i.e. greater than zero), suffering can only approach zero when trust is very high compared to control and coping is very high compared to stress. We concluded that all four variable are important for managing suffering, but no matter how much we try to reduce control and stress, a lack of trust or coping will always make suffering skyrocket.

In my work, I also sometimes talk about suffering being caused by expectations. On the surface, this idea doesn’t seem to fit our formula, but if we think about expectations as beliefs or feelings about how things will be or should be, then perhaps we can simply substitute expectation for feeling:

(19) Suffering = (Expectation x Control / Trust) + (Stress / Coping)

This substitution suggests that expectations, like feelings, are not the real problem. In fact, expectations are probably a constant in life, just like feelings. We all have them. Expectations only contribute to significant suffering when they are combined with high control (i.e. clinging) and low trust. In the end, our Unified Theory of Human Suffering still holds true. Here it is one more time:

(14) Suffering = (Feeling x Control / Trust) + (Stress / Coping)

Now that we have a mathematical model for suffering, let’s consider a few examples…

If I kicked you in the shin, you would experience pain (i.e. a negative physical Feeling), which is only natural. However, your suffering could be greatly amplified by your resistance to the feeling (i.e. Control), by you clinging to the expectation that I shouldn’t have done it (i.e. Feeling x Control), or by your worry that I may have broken your tibia (i.e. Stress). Similarly, your suffering could be alleviated by accepting the pain, letting go of expectations, believing that my intentions were not malicious (i.e. Trust), and managing your worry effectively (i.e. Coping).

Let’s consider another example in which you are working with a team on a group project. If you don’t trust your group, you might cope by trying to control the direction of the project or the contributions of the other members. Through all this extra effort, you suffer. Over time, the other members may begin to resent your control or take advantage of you by doing less. Through their negativity or passivity, you suffer. If you resist the urge to control, you may still suffer due to lack of trust or insufficient coping mechanisms. Even if you do trust your group, they may fail to meet your expectations. To the extent that you cling to those expectations, and to the extent that you fail to trust that things will still work out, you suffer. And even if you adjust your expectations and renew your trust, there is always the potential for further disappointments and suffering.

With all these different paths to suffering, what can you do? You can’t avoid having feelings and expectations. That’s not possible. If the group project is not optional, then you also can’t avoid the stress. What you can do is utilize good coping skills, resist the urge to control, adjust to the ever-changing reality before you, and trust that things will work out somehow… even if you can’t see it.

One of my favorite quotes captures this idea beautifully, and I will end this long discourse with these timeless words:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? Be strong and of a good courage. Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes… If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.
Fitz James Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1874

A Formula for Suffering (Part 2)

In Part 1, we concluded that, while feelings (i.e. emotions and sensations) are a constant in life, suffering can be reduced by letting go of control. However, control also serves as a coping mechanism for handling stress, so reduced control means reduced coping, which can add to suffering. Here are the formulas we used to represent these lines of thought:

(10) Suffering = Feeling x Control
(12) Suffering = Stress / Coping

While the overall effect of reducing control may be positive, our formulas suggest that we can also reduce suffering by reducing stress and increasing coping. Reducing stress generally means taking some of the stressors off of our plates, while increasing coping means enlarging our plates through improvements in self-care and stress management. The goal, of course, is to have a plate that isn’t overflowing.

At this point, I would like to modify our control formula (10) to make room for another important variable, which is trust:

(13) Suffering = Feeling x Control / Trust

This new variable represents our degree of trust in self, others, and life. When we have trust, we are better able to let go of the feelings that contribute to suffering (e.g. doubts, fears, worries, and insecurities). Therefore, as trust goes up, suffering goes down, regardless of the level of control. However, as trust approaches zero, suffering approaches infinity.

Trust is an internal process related to how we see the world (i.e. our subjective perceptions), while control is more of a response or behavior. This means that we can address suffering through our behaviors (control) or through the personal perceptions on which they are based (trust). I believe the perception approach is more efficient in the long run, because increased trust will lead to fewer behavioral concerns. It’s a matter of treating superficial vs. underlying causes. A lack of trust causes suffering, and people often cope with suffering by increasing control, which then leads to further suffering. Both trust and control are related to suffering, but trust (i.e. perception) is the deeper issue.

If we add together the suffering derived from control and trust (13) with the suffering derived from stress and coping (12), we get a single formula for understanding suffering:

(14) Suffering = (Feeling x Control / Trust) + (Stress / Coping)

Just for fun, let’s call this our Unified Theory of Human Suffering. What it says is that, if we hold feelings as a constant, suffering goes up with increases in control and stress, but it goes down with increases in trust and coping.**

I assume that humans can never completely let go of control, so control can never reach zero. I also assume that stress can never reach zero, because stressors are inherent in life. Meanwhile, I assume that trust and coping have no such limits. At least in theory, we can lose our trust completely, and we can suffer a complete breakdown in coping. Here are my assumptions in mathematical form:

(15) Control > 0
(16) Stress > 0
(17) Trust ≥ 0
(18) Coping ≥ 0

If these assumptions are true, then suffering can never equal zero, because control, stress, and feeling are always present (i.e. greater than zero). The only way suffering can get close to zero is for trust to be very high compared to control and for coping to be very high compared to stress. Of course, all four variable are important, but no matter how much we try to reduce control and stress, a lack of trust or coping will always make suffering skyrocket!

In A Formula for Suffering (Part 3), we will conclude this exploration by looking at the role of expectations and walking through some examples to see how our formula might work in practice.

**I realize that these variables are not entirely independent (control is related to coping, stress is related to trust, etc.). I also realize that there is no single unit of measurement that could possibly quantify all these variables. These formulas are simply useful as tools for exploration and reflection.

A Formula for Suffering (Part 1)

Metaphors come in all shapes and sizes, which is good, because different people resonate with different images or concepts. Sometimes, even mathematics can be helpful in exploring an idea. A prime example is using algebra to better understand the nature of suffering. As a starting point, we will use two formulas that are attributed to Shinzen Young and his Fundamental Theorem of Human Happiness:

(1) Suffering = Pain x Resistance
(2) Frustration = Pleasure x Grasping

The basic idea is that suffering results from resisting pain and grasping at pleasure. As resistance and grasping increase, suffering and frustration increase. As resistance and grasping approach zero, suffering and frustration approach zero. These ideas go back to the earliest teachings of the Buddha over 2300 years ago, especially his teaching on The Four Noble Truths.

In working with these formulas, I like to start with a few assumptions. First, I assume that frustration is a form of suffering. Second, I assume that pain represents any negative feeling (-Feeling), including both emotions and physical sensations, while pleasure represents any positive feeling (+Feeling). Finally, I assume that resistance and grasping are both forms of control. Resistance is control used to push something away, while grasping is control used to pull something in. Here are my assumptions in mathematical form:

(3) Frustration = Suffering
(4) Pain = -Feeling
(5) Pleasure = +Feeling
(6) Resistance = Control
(7) Grasping = Control

If we apply these assumptions to our original formulas, we get the following:

(8) Suffering = -Feeling x Control
(9) Suffering = +Feeling x Control

In other words, suffering comes from taking our positive or negative feelings and magnifying them through control (i.e. resistance or grasping). We can simplify these formulas by realizing that, regardless of whether feelings are positive or negative, the rest of the formulas are the same. Therefore, we can combine them into a single equation:

(10) Suffering = Feeling x Control

If we assume that feelings are an essential part of life, even the negative ones, then perhaps we can hold feelings as a constant. In other words, reducing feelings is not really an option, so if we wish to reduce suffering, we must focus on reducing the level of control.

The implications of this formula (10) are profound, because control is a widely accepted, even celebrated, approach to life. I’m not just talking about “control freaks”. I’m talking about anyone who resists or clings to certain feelings, and that includes just about all of us! If control actually produces suffering, then we must question its effectiveness as a coping strategy, no matter how popular.

The formula does offer a simple solution to suffering, which is to reduce control. Unfortunately, while this solution may be simple, it is far from easy. There may also be negative side-effects to reducing control. Letting go of control means reducing a coping mechanism for handling stress, and with fewer coping mechanisms, anxiety increases. Mathematically, we might say it this way:

(11) Anxiety = Stress / Coping

In this formula, the amount of anxiety is determined by the ratio of stress to coping. As coping goes down, anxiety goes up. If we assume that anxiety is yet another form of suffering, we get this:

(12) Suffering = Stress / Coping

So, by reducing control, which is also a form of coping, we reduce suffering in one way (10) but increase it in another (12). What is the net effect? I believe that humans are not very good at control, and as a result, control is not a very good coping mechanism. Therefore, the benefits of control (12) are limited. I also believe that control efforts cause a lot of damage, so the costs of control (10) are great. If my assumptions are accurate, then the net effect is that control causes more suffering than it prevents.

In A Formula for Suffering (Part 2), we will continue this exploration by considering the role of trust. We will also attempt to combine our equations into a single formula for understanding human suffering.