Tag: Thich Nhat Hanh

Afraid of the light!

Back to learning from our wonderful dogs.

Last week, on the 9th to be exact, I published a post under the title of What a funny lot we all are! The thrust of that post was the republication of a recent Tom Dispatch essay by Michael Klare: Tipping Points and the Question of Civilizational Survival. Professor Michael T. Klare is professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. Those who read his essay will have found it a gloomy report on the future of mankind on this planet.

Back to my sub-title.

One of the golden pieces of advice for all of us who succumb to a fear of the future is to live in the present. Living in the now, in the present, is what our dogs do so very well, and it is a fabulous example for us humans. Because there is such a volume of news about so many things going wrong in our world, that it is easy to become overly negative, possibly to the point of causing us ill health, for there is strong link between mind and body.

When circumstances actually do change then dogs are incredibly quick to adapt to those changed times. Dogs, however, do not worry about the future.

All of which is my preamble to an essay that was published under The Conversation header on Sunday. It was an essay by Melanie Randle, and the link goes to a page that offers:

Melanie is an Associate Professor of Marketing in the School of Management, Operations and Marketing in the Faculty of Business at the University of Wollongong. Her primary research areas are social and non-profit marketing, particularly in the areas of volunteering and foster care. Other research interests include marketing to children, obesity and gambling.

That profile doesn’t give much of a heads-up to the theme of her essay. That theme, to my way of thinking, is that right now change is underway. A change in the awareness of people that change has to take place.

Which is why I chose part of a saying attributed to Plato for the title to this post. The full saying being:

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.

So to Melanie’s essay.

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Many fear the worst for humanity, so how do we avoid surrendering to an apocalyptic fate?

Melanie Randle, October 11, 2015

A new, four-nation study has found people rate the risks of global threats to humanity surprisingly high. These perceptions are likely to be important, socially and politically, in shaping how humanity responds to the threats.

The study, of more than 2000 people in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, found:

  • 54% of people surveyed rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50% or greater;
  • almost one in four (24%) rated the risk of humans being wiped out within a century at 50% or greater;
  • almost three in four (73%) believe there is a 30% or greater risk of our way of life ending (30% said that the risk is 70% or more); and
  • almost four in ten (39%) believe there is a 30% or greater danger of humanity being wiped out (10% said the risk is 70% or more).

Perceptions of risks to way of life and humanity by country

Percentage support for propositions that existing way of life and humanity have a 50% or more chance of ending in a century. University of Wollongong, Author provided
Percentage support for propositions that existing way of life and humanity have a 50% or more chance of ending in a century. University of Wollongong, Author provided

The study also asked people about different responses to the threats. These responses were categorised as nihilism (the loss of belief in a social or moral order; decadence rules), fundamentalism (the retreat to certain belief; dogma rules), or activism (the transformation of belief; hope rules). It found:

  • a large majority (78%) agreed “we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world” (activism);
  • about one in two (48%) agreed that “the world’s future looks grim so we have to focus on looking after ourselves and those we love” (nihilism); and
  • more than one in three (36%) said “we are facing a final conflict between good and evil in the world” (fundamentalism).

Findings were similar across countries, age, sex and other demographic groups, although some interesting differences emerged. For example, more Americans (30%) believed the risk of humans being wiped out was high and that humanity faces a final conflict between good and evil (47%). This presumably reflects the strength in the US of Christian fundamentalism and its belief in the “end time”, a coming Apocalypse.

Perceptions of risk to way of life and humanity by generation

Percentage support for propositions that existing way of life and humanity have a 50% or more chance of ending in a century. University of Wollongong, Author provided
Percentage support for propositions that existing way of life and humanity have a 50% or more chance of ending in a century. University of Wollongong, Author provided

A world of threats coming to a head

There is mounting scientific evidence and concern that humanity faces a defining moment in history – a time when it must address growing adversities or suffer grave consequences. Reputable journals are canvassing the possibilities; the new study will be published in a special issue of Futures on “Confronting catastrophic threats to humanity”.

Most focus today is on climate change and its many, potentially catastrophic, impacts. Other threats include depletion and degradation of natural resources and ecosystems; continuing world population growth; disease pandemics; global economic collapse; nuclear and biological war and terrorism; and runaway technological change.

Many of these threats are not new. Scientists and other experts have warned of the dangers for decades. Nevertheless, the evidence is growing stronger, especially about climate change, and never before have actual events, including natural disasters and calamities, and their sustained and graphic media coverage so powerfully reinforced the possible impacts.

Not surprisingly, then, surveys reveal widespread public pessimism about the future of the world, at least in Western countries. This includes a common perception of declining quality of life, or that future generations will be worse off.

However, there appears to have been little research into people’s perceptions of how dire humanity’s predicament is, including the risk of collapse of civilisation or human extinction. These perceptions have a significant bearing on how societies, and humanity as a whole, deal with potentially catastrophic futures.

How does loss of faith in the future affect us?

People’s responses in our study do not necessarily represent considered assessments of the specific risks. Rather, they are likely to be an expression of a more general uncertainty and fear, a loss of faith in a future constructed around notions of material progress, economic growth and scientific and technological fixes to the challenges we face.

This loss of faith is important, yet hardly registers in current debate and discussion. We have yet to understand its full implications.

At best, the high perception of risk and the strong endorsement of an activist response could drive a much greater effort to confront global threats. At worst, with a loss of hope, fear of a catastrophic future erodes people’s faith in society, affecting their roles and responsibilities, and their relationship to social institutions, especially government.

It can deny us a social ideal to believe in – something to convince us to subordinate our own individual interests to a higher social purpose.

There is a deeply mythic dimension to this situation. Humans have always been susceptible to apocalyptic visions, especially in times of rapid change; we need utopian ideals to inspire us.

Our visions of the future are woven into the stories we create to make sense and meaning of our lives, to link us to a broader social or collective narrative. Historians and futurists have emphasised the importance of confidence and optimism to the health of civilisations and, conversely, the dangers of cynicism and disillusion.

Despite increasing political action on specific issues like climate change, globally the scale of our response falls far short of matching the magnitude of the threats. Closing this gap requires a deeper understanding of how people perceive the risks and how they might respond.

This article was co-authored by Richard Eckersley, founding director of Australia21.

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Now there’s nothing in the essay from Randle and Eckersley to say that these are not critically important times for all of humanity. Yet, I detect that among the many people one meets on a day-to-day basis there is a growing understanding that we can’t just lie down and let the future ride on over us. That living in the present and responding to the world around us here and now is the healthiest way to be, and the most effective. No more powerfully expressed than by Thich Nhat Hanh

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.”

Saturday serendipity

Facing up to our challenges often inspires new beginnings.

I subscribe to Val Boyco’s blog Find Your Middle Ground (and love it!).

Last Thursday, Val published a beautiful poem that she, in turn, had seen over on Mindfulbalance, a blog that I hadn’t come across but suspect that I am going to like.

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Originally posted on Mindfulbalance:

Trittsteine_am_oberen_Teich_Japanischer_Garten_Kaiserslautern

It may be that

when we no longer know

what to do,

we have come

to our real work,

and when we

no longer know

which way to go,

we have begun

our real journey

Wendell Berry, The Real Work

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Going to close today’s post by repeating something that is in a little book that I have had for years: Extracts from Peace In Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh originally published by Bantam Books.

Aimlessness

There is a word in Buddhism that means “witlessness” or “aimlessness”. The idea is that you do not put something in front of you and run after it, because everything is already here, in yourself.

While we practice walking meditation, we do not try to arrive anywhere. We only make peaceful, happy steps.

By taking good care of the present moment, we take good care of the future.

You all have a wonderful present moment!

Being Present!

Being in the present is the key message that we can learn from dogs. Why is this so important?

‘Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without
rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.’ ~Thich Nhat Hanh

[my blue emboldening]

Unlike Jon, I muse as an ‘amateur’ when I sense that the human psyche is attracted to fear.  I use that word ‘attracted’ simply because some stimuli that touch our consciousness seem to have more force than others. Ergo, the response to the simple question of asking someone how they are, is likely to me more engaging if they come up with some form of crisis reply than by saying, “Everything’s fine, thanks!”  Look at how the news media use the power of fear to capture our attention.

There is a strong biological explanation for this.  From the Science daily website,

The amygdala (Latin, corpus amygdaloideum) is an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe. Shown to play a key role in the processing of emotions, the amygdala forms part of the limbic system.

In humans and other animals, this subcortical brain structure is linked to both fear responses and pleasure. Its size is positively correlated with aggressive behaviour across species.  In humans, it is the most sexually-dimorphic brain structure, and shrinks by more than 30% in males upon castration.

Conditions such as anxiety, autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias are suspected of being linked to abnormal functioning of the amygdala, owing to damage, developmental problems, or neurotransmitter imbalance.

For more information about the topic Amygdala, read the full article at Wikipedia.org

I am going to get to the point of this article but stay with me a little longer.  Let’s look some more at the ‘fight or flight’ aspect of our brains.  From the website, How Stuff Works,

It’s dark out, and you’re home alone. The house is quiet other than the sound of the show you’re watching on TV. You see it and hear it at the same time: The front door is suddenly thrown against the door frame.  Your breathing speeds up. Your heart races. Your muscles tighten.

An instant later, you know it’s the wind. No one is trying to get into your home.

For a split second, you were so afraid that you reacted as if your life were in danger, your body initiating the fight-or-flight response that is critical to any animal’s survival. But really, there was no danger at all. What happened to cause such an intense reaction? What exactly is fear? In this article, we’ll examine the psychological and physical properties of fear, find out what causes a fear response and look at some ways you can defeat it.

What is Fear?
Fear is a chain reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus and ends with the release of chemicals that cause a racing heart, fast breathing and energized muscles, among other things, also known as the fight-or-flight response. The stimulus could be a spider, a knife at your throat, an auditorium full of people waiting for you to speak or the sudden thud of your front door against the door frame.

The brain is a profoundly complex organ. More than 100 billion nerve cells comprise an intricate network of communications that is the starting point of everything we sense, think and do. Some of these communications lead to conscious thought and action, while others produce autonomic responses. The fear response is almost entirely autonomic: We don’t consciously trigger it or even know what’s going on until it has run its course.

Because cells in the brain are constantly transferring information and triggering responses, there are dozens of areas of the brain at least peripherally involved in fear. But research has discovered that certain parts of the brain play central roles in the process:

  • Thalamus – decides where to send incoming sensory data (from eyes, ears, mouth, skin)
  • Sensory cortex – interprets sensory data
  • Hippocampus – stores and retrieves conscious memories; processes sets of stimuli to establish context
  • Amygdala – decodes emotions; determines possible threat; stores fear memories
  • Hypothalamus – activates “fight or flight” response

Now I originally called this article Present Perfect but WordPress quickly indicated that the title had already been used. Once again, the old memory cells are failing me!  In fact the post of the name Present Perfect was published on the 8th June, just a couple of months ago.  Glad that I was reminded because from that article in June,

Did you see Mr. Holland’s Opus? About Glenn Holland’s lifetime of teaching music to a high school band. In one scene he is giving a private lesson to Gertrude. She is playing clarinet, making noises that can only be described as other-worldly. He is clearly frustrated. As is she. Finally Mr. Holland says, “Let me ask you a question. When you look in the mirror what do you like best about yourself?”

“My hair,” says Gertrude.

“Why?”

“Well, my father always says that it reminds him of the sunset.”

After a pause, Mr. Holland says, “Okay.  Close your eyes this time. And play the sunset.”

And from her clarinet? Music. Sweet music.

Sometime today, I invite you to set aside the manual, or the list, or the prescription.

Take a Sabbath moment. . . close your eyes and play the sunset.

Mary Oliver describes such a moment this way, “. . .a seizure of happiness. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished.”

Because, in such a moment, we are in, quite literally, a State of Grace.  In other words, what we experience here is not as a means to anything else.

If I am to focused on evaluating, I cannot bask in the moment.

If I am measuring and weighing, I cannot marvel at little miracles.

If I am anticipating a payoff, I cannot give thanks for simple pleasures.

If I am feeling guilty about not hearing or living the music, I cannot luxuriate in the wonders of the day.

Beautiful thoughts all woven around the power of focusing on the moment (if you want to catch up on the full article it is here).

Jon’s article last Monday was all about the way forward in a positive, well-being sense.  In that article Jon showed the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs pyramid.  It’s reproduced again below; spend a few moments absorbing the nature and sense of each level in that hierarchy.

Now ponder on that fear – ‘fight or flight’ – response.  Most likely it’s going to be initiated in the ‘Safety’ level but flick straight down one level to the ‘Physiological’ layer.  All very primitive stuff and utterly out of our control!  Remember from the extract above, “The fear response is almost entirely autonomic.

Even modest amounts of these fear responses is very wearying, very unsettling.  Remember Jon touched on that when he wrote,

The point I’m trying to make is that the same panic I notice in many of the companies I work in, and in me, is based on fear of the unknown and on a lack of trust in all its forms.  I’ve deliberately underlined that last phrase because it is so incredibly important. The truth is that we get more of what we focus on. So we can choose to focus on the constant news of more difficulties, hardship and redundancies, or we can focus on what is working.

So because our fear response is entirely autonomic and because there is so much out there, all around us, pulling those autonomic strings we have to actively, quite deliberately, do what dogs (and many other animals) do quite naturally.  We deliberately have to focus on spending time being in the present!

There was a recent piece from Leo Babauta about being in the present.  While he doesn’t touch on the underlying biology of why we humans are so ‘attracted’ to fear, he does offer some excellent advice about being in the present.

No matter how out-of-control your day is, no matter how stressful your job or life becomes, the act of being present can become an oasis. It can change your life, and it’s incredibly simple.

Look at Lorraine’s website (a recent visitor to Learning from Dogs).  In particular this piece, from which I quote,

3. The Serenity Prayer – all about accepting the things I cannot change and changing the things I can.

4. People are always more important than things. Things can mostly be replaced but people cannot.

5. Do it now – if there is something to be done, then what is stopping me from doing it straight away?

6. If I appreciate and look after what I have now, there will be a positive flow back to me in the future. If I am neglectful and ungrateful with what I have now, I cannot expect to be rewarded with more in the future.

7. Be quiet and keep breathing – no one will know how crazy I feel inside :-)

8. Don’t hold on to people or things too tightly. Be open to letting go and letting be.

9. It is really important to let others know that I love them. They need to know now and often. Love isn’t just a beautiful feeling – show it by how I act and speak with those I love.

10. I can’t make anyone love me and I can’t fix anyone by loving them. I may have a script for how life should be but I have no control over other people, places or things. Go with the flow and accept what is.

(The blue emboldening is mine – highlighting the power of now.)

Grandson Morten - peace in the present

Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”

Power of peace

This week is a tough one for me with no internet access until the 18th.  So I’m quickly offering items from elsewhere that have caught my eye.

Seriously being at rest!

Here’s another thoughtful, and powerful, reminder of the power of peace from Zen Habits.

‘The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.’~Thich Nhat Hanh

These days we have an abundance of luxuries, but I’ve found that excess actually decreases my enjoyment of life.

Sure, we can get massive amounts of rich foods, feasting to our heart’s content, stuffing ourselves in alarming displays of gluttony … but is that really enjoyable on a regular basis?

And yes, television can be fun, and so can ridiculously large parts of the Internet, but if it’s always on, if we’re always connected, doesn’t that lower the fun factor?

Excesses lead to all kinds of problems, but the biggest problem is that life is less enjoyable.

I’ve been finding that simplifying things means I can savor life more fully.

Savoring life starts with a mindset. It’s a mindset that believes that excess, that rushing, that busy-ness, that distractedness, isn’t ideal. It’s a mindset that tries instead to:

  • simplify
  • do & consume less
  • slow down
  • be mindful & present
  • savor things fully

It’s the little things that make life enjoyable: a walk with a loved one, a delicious book, a chilled plum, a newly blooming tree.

And by simplifying, we can savor life to the fullest.

Some ideas I’ve been considering lately:

1. Coffee: Instead of ordering a latte, mocha, cappuccino with whipped cream and cinnamon and shavings … simplify. Just get pure, good coffee (or espresso), brewed fresh with care and precision, with quality beans, freshly roasted. Make it yourself if you can. Drink it slowly, with little or nothing added, and enjoy it thoroughly.

2. Tea: I recently had tea with Jesse Jacobs, the owner of Samovar Tea Lounge, and he poured two different teas from tiny tea pots: Nishi Sencha 1st Flush and Bai Hao Oolong tea. It was fresh, hand-made tea from real leaves, not a tea bag, and it was simply delicious. Drink it slowly, with your eyes closed, fully appreciating the aroma … wonderful.

3. Workouts: I’ve been a fan of simpler workouts recently. While others might spend an hour to 90 minutes in the gym, going through a series of 10 different exercises, I just do 1-3 functional exercises, but with intensity. So I might do some sprint intervals, or a few rounds of pushups, pullups, and bodyweight squats. Or 400 meters of walking lunges. Let me tell you, that’s a simple but incredible workout. Another I like: five rounds 85-lb. squat thrusters (10 reps) alternated with pushups (10 reps). Today’s workout was three rounds of 15 burpees and 800-meter runs. No rest unless you need it. These are great workouts, but very simple, and very tough. I love them.

4. Sweets: I used to be a sugar addict. Now I still enjoy an occasional dessert, but in tiny portions, eaten very slowly. What I enjoy even more, though, is cold fruit. A chilled peach, some blueberries, a few strawberries, a plum: eat it one bite at a time, close your eyes with each bite, and enjoy to the fullest. So good.

5. Meals: While the trend these days is super-sized meals of greasy, fried things (more than two people need to eat actually), I have been enjoying smaller meals of simplicity. Just a few ingredients, fresh, whole, unprocessed, without chemicals or sauces. My meals usually include: a breakfast of steel-cut oats (cooked) with cinnamon, almonds, and berries; a lunch of yogurt, nuts, and fruit; a dinner of beans or tofu with quinoa and steamed veggies (or sauteed with garlic and olive oil). These simple meals are better because not only are they healthy, each ingredient can be tasted, its flavor fully enjoyed.

6. Reading: While the Internet is chock full of things to read, I’ve been enjoying the simplicity of a paper book, borrowed from the library or a friend (borrowing/sharing reduces natural resources consumed). When I read online, I read a single article at a time, using either the Readability or Clippable bookmarklet to remove distrations, and in full-screen mode in the Chrome browser (hit Cmd-Shift-F on the Mac version or F11 in Windows). It’s pure reading, no distractions, and lovely.