Monday, September 19, 2011

Being Stressed Out as a Spiritual Practice

by Jon Cleland Host

"Being Stressed Out As a Spiritual Practice?!" Say, what?

You’re probably thinking: “Wow, I’m way, waaaaaay more spiritual than I ever thought. If being stressed out is a spiritual practice, then I’m right up there with the Dalai Lama!”

Or perhaps (more likely) you're thinking: “You’re joking, right?”

No, I’m serious! But let me back up for a minute.

We know that biologically, during evolution, good things (like eyes, brains, etc.) are selected for only if they are needed at the time. After all, if a creature can survive OK without the latest mutation, then it will do so, and the latest mutation won’t spread across the population. Hence, everything I appreciate, like being able to walk, think and see, are all the results of huge amounts of struggle, without which we’d all still be pond scum. Like that ‘80’s workout slogan, “No pain, no gain”.

And look at what we are blessed with! Powerful bodies made of incomparable molecular 'machines', eyes, the most advanced brain known of in the Universe, and more – each the result of an unthinkable amount of hardship – or it simply would not have been selected for.

When one deeply appreciates this mountain of struggle we all stand upon, our daily difficulties take on new meaning. Challenges (ours and our ancestor's), as bad as they may be in the moment, are what gave all of us much of what we value most! If I sat around and did nothing in a cushy life, I’d feel that I’d let those Ancestors down, that I wasn’t a worthy recipient of the wondrous gifts they bequeathed me.

So whenever I feel pressure or difficulty, I know that it's very much like that which allowed me to be, and that pressure can help me grow. I couldn’t feel it without some taste of stress. In fact, our lives today have a lot less stress than existed in many of those past lives! Few of us, after all, are just hoping to be breathing tomorrow, which at times in the past was really in doubt on a regular basis. So, though I don’t intentionally try to get unneeded stress, I remind myself that every drop of stress I get is a gateway to deeper appreciation of every good thing in the world today.

Yes, being stressed out is indeed a spiritual practice, if I choose to make it so.

~ Jon Cleland Host

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Larry Goes Clubbing

by Shane Dowd

Last weekend, I was invited to go out for drinks and dancing at one of the local watering holes. The group that I was going with was mostly women.

*Larry the Lounge Lizard starts to perk up here*

Also, I hear clubs are notoriously full of scantily clad lady folk.

*Now Larry is really paying attention*

To further complicate the issue, my girlfriend has been out of town for the past two weeks. So speaking frankly, Larry (and Shane!) have been missing her ... a lot!

What is a testosterone-filled young man supposed to do in this situation?

Science has shown that when a man’s primary partner is away, his testosterone levels elevate, as does his sperm count. Evolution would have it so, apparently, because in the ancient (maybe not so ancient) past, this was prime time for a man to possibly land an EPC. That’s code for, what biologists routinely call, “extra-pair copulation.”

Higher testosterone = think more about sex and take more risks.

Hmmm . . .

Fortunately, armed with this knowledge, I can now know what challenges to expect, and I can pre-decide how to deal with them.

I am committed to not cheating. However, I also have a deep appreciation and reverence for the power of my instincts, especially when alcohol is involved and inhibitions are thereby lowered and judgment is clouded.

So what did I do?

With Larry whispering inside my head, trying to fulfill his ancient yearnings, I decided to create a game of sorts. It would be a game to see just how impeccable I could be in my actions, and a game to honor my girlfriend. Undoubtedly also, this game would strengthen the “muscles” of my prefrontal cortex that must be trained and exercised to do the “harder thing” — harder meaning, going against our primal instincts (sorry, Larry!).

The day before Larry and I were scheduled to go clubbing, I called up a trusted friend and explained the game:

“I want to commit to only having 3 drinks and also acting in such a way that if there was a video camera on me, and my girlfriend was going to see the tape the next day, she would be proud of my behavior — and feel very honored by me.”

I also shared this game with my girlfriend — which was not at all a scary thing to do. Ever since she and I took time together to read about the basics of our evolved male and female brains (see the links below), I have been able to authentically share what most of us guys assume we just have to keep hidden: that we do notice hot women, and that our Larrys do perk up. (See my earlier post, when I introduced “Larry” as my own playful name for the lustful part of my brain that harks back to when humanity’s ancient ancestor was still a reptile.)

Actually, I didn’t just explain the game to Meredith. Once she got the gist, she and I started joking around about all the hot women that would attract Larry’s attention, but that I, trustworthy Shane, would not be flirting with.

The night was a breeze (and still a ton of fun!). I danced with my female friends, I had my three drinks, and I completely honored my girlfriend and our relationship.

Would I have been fine had I not been playing this game? Absolutely. It was never about “keeping the reins” on out-of-control habits. It was simply a way of honoring my instincts and honoring what's most important to me, which is the trust in my relationship.

If you are a man who has struggled with straying or flirting outside of your relationship — and if you are committed to faithful monogamy — I encourage you to learn about your brain’s evolutionary machinery. Then you can choose to practice honoring its deeply rooted desires, as well as your higher values and commitments.

When you can authentically love those deep drives, without succumbing to their every whim, (and your partner can too), be prepared to enjoy a “lightness of being” and playfulness that's unlike anything else!

NOTE: Links to some of Meredith's and my favorite resources on this subject:

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships) - Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Strange Bedfellows: The Surprising Connection Between Sex, Evolution and Monogamy - David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton

You Still Don't Understand: Typical Differences Between Men and Women—and How to Resolve Them - Richard Driscoll and Nancy Ann Davis

The Female Brain and The Male Brain - Louann Brizendine

Evolutionary Psychology I: The Science of Human Nature - Allen D. MacNeill

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Evidential Reformation: Humanity Comes of Age

by Michael Dowd

“We will never achieve a just and sustainably lifegiving future on the resources of the existing religious traditions, and we can’t get there without them.”
~ Thomas Berry

The 21st century will be seen historically as humanity’s rite of passage. We’re growing up as a species, going through the very same process we’ve all gone through as we mature. As children we’re guided by beliefs and we think the world was made for us. As adults, we’re guided by knowledge and we live our lives (at least in part) as a contribution to others and the world. Indeed, for healthy adults, self-giving is actually one of life’s greatest satisfactions. As well, most of us needed no special training or incentives to begin questioning the beliefs we were spoon-fed as children – just the usual dose of hormones and peer focus that signals adolescence.

These two transformations, from beliefs to knowledge and from self-focus to contribution, are precisely what we’re now collectively experiencing. I call this species-wide rite of passage the “Evidential Reformation,” and I believe it is destined to transform not only the science-and-religion debate and how religious traditions relate to one another, but, even more importantly, how humans relate to the larger body of life of which we are part and upon which we depend.

A Big History Perspective on Religion Through Time

Big history, also known as the epic of evolution, is our common creation narrative. It is the first origin story in the history of humanity that is globally produced, derived entirely from evidence, and will soon be taught to high school students around the world (see here, here, and the YouTube clip at the end of this post).

In our “childhood” as a species – as tribes, then villages, then chiefdoms and kingdoms, then city-states and early nations – our main source of guidance came from religious beliefs. Shared allegiance to a particular religion that bridged even ethnic and linguistic differences was a crucial factor in the rise of civilizations across the globe. Consider: our instinctual heritage as social mammals will suffice for fostering cooperation at the scale of a clan. (Biologists call these instinctive forms of cooperation kin selection and reciprocal altruism.) Mutually advantageous trade then facilitated greater circles of cooperation. But for 10,000 or more human beings to be induced to cooperate: for that, you need religion – a singular, shared, unquestioned religion, and probably one that doles out harsh consequences (including ostracism) for apostates.

A multitude of religions arose independently of course, because in any bioregion where fierce competition for territory or resources arose, there would have been a survival advantage to groups that could forge cross-clan alliances for mutual defense. As well, there are two functional issues that all cultures need to address: what’s real and what’s important. (In a six-minute YouTube video based on his book, Religion Is Not About God, philosopher of religion Loyal Rue refers to these two functions as “how things are” and “which things matter.”) These two functional issues will be answered differently based upon where and when you live and upon the happenstance of interpretive imagination of one’s ancestors. Each “wisdom tradition” thus reflects regional collective intelligence encoded mythically. That is, the regional collective intelligence is encoded in pre-scientific language that reflects a people’s daytime and nighttime experience. (See here for a discussion of “Day and Night Language,” which was a central concept in my book, Thank God for Evolution.)

In our “adolescence” as a species (which was a threshold crossed as the modern era swept the globe), we began to question the beliefs, interpretations, and meanings we had inherited. The birth of this new form of collective intelligence, global collective intelligence, occurred when access to powerful new technologies (beginning with the telescope) ramped up our ability to discern how things are. We then faced the frightening truth that ancient understandings were not, in fact, the best maps of what is real. This challenging process is still facing much of the world, as traditional religious beliefs are increasingly found to be obsolete and simply no longer credible when interpreted literally.

Some individuals thrilled to the prospect of participating in this threshold event: of valuing measurable observation, rationality, and collectively encouraged skepticism and testing as the preferred means for discerning what’s real and what’s important. In the 19th century these “natural philosophers” became known as “scientists.”

The two institutions responsible for ensuring that the self-interest of individuals and groups are aligned – namely, governance and religion – were impacted differently by the rise of modern science. Democratic forms of governance were the first to embrace evidence as authoritative. Religions are only now beginning to catch up and to not only experience the terror but also taste the thrill of what the Evidential Reformation offers.

Like any rite of passage, once one voluntarily steps through the threshold there is no integrous and healthy way of going back. So of course there are shrill voices of protest and deep institutional inertia.

But ultimately, this shift will happen. One by one, segment by segment, the great religions of the world will pass through the threshold – else they will wither and the new generations will leave them entirely behind.

“Idolatry of the Written Word” as Today’s Greatest Impediment

What the Evidential Reformation offers for religion is centrally this: Science reveals “God’s word” for humanity today – that is, what’s real and what’s important, or how things are and which things matter – far more accurately than the Bible or Qur’an could ever hope to. And Moses, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the Prophet Mohammad would surely be among the first to applaud this trend were they alive today.

Yet, until faith leaders become a whole lot bolder in proclaiming to their flocks the goodness and necessity of this shift, religious people will remain blind and deaf to what God (Reality personified) is revealing today through scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence. And that means that God/Reality will continue using the New Atheists to mock unchanging religious beliefs and those who espouse such beliefs.

The main hindrance to religious people wholeheartedly embracing evidence as divine communication – divine guidance (i.e., how Reality reveals itself) – has been what I have long been characterizing as idolatry of the written word (also here). Idolatry of the written word occurred anywhere in the world where ancient oral stories (which surely evolved for millennia as conditions and needs changed) became frozen into unchanging scripture – scripture that was then deemed as the foundational (even the sole) locus for discerning priorities, values, right thinking, and right behavior.

This shift from oral storytelling to unchanging scripture as the way wisdom, morality, and a sense of the sacred (supreme value) is generationally passed forward set the stage (albeit centuries later) for a profound and now exponentially expanding mismatch. This mismatch is between globally shared and empirically tested updates of (once-again) evolving wisdom versus what religious people still preference as “God’s Word”.

Idolatry of the written word has thus led to what could be considered “demonic beliefs.” I do not hesitate to use such harsh language because any and all beliefs that cause good people to do bad things and to vote in evil ways (ways that are shortsighted, self-centered, and harmful to future generations) are demonic. And who among us does not see where such beliefs have led to a kind of collective insanity? The only cure, as far as I can tell, is for religious leaders to accept – indeed, to celebrate – that scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence are the actual venues through which Reality/God is speaking and guiding humanity today. Fortunately, this shift is happening rapidly…and seems likely to be fleshed out in just another generation or two.

I do not decry or disvalue this aspect of religious history. Indeed, I accept that idolatry of the written word could not have been avoided. Without the shift to literacy, humanity would never have been able to access the fruits of modernity: the rule of law, exponentially growing knowledge, cumulative technological and medical advances, and a widening sense of one’s “in-group” and compassionate treatment thereof.

Nonetheless, the negative social consequences of this form of idolatry have been quite severe – and threaten to become even more terrifying and destructive as deadly weapons come in ever smaller packages. It is thus time to prophetically speak out against continued favoring of ancient scriptural ‘authority’ over our best collective understandings of facts and values today. Said another way, the Church, currently shipwrecked (also here) on the immovable rock of “biblical authority”, can still be saved, but only by embracing “the authority of evidence”. Reality would have it no other way.

Our Way Forward: Aligning Self-Interest with Species-Wide & Global Interests

One of the most significant and hopeful insights to emerge from the early days of the Evidential Reformation is a re-envisioning of what “self-interest” really is. Self-interest actually exists at all biological and cultural levels – not just at the obvious, individual level. Indeed, the key to ever-increasing social complexity in the human realm over the past 10,000 years has been the aligning of self-interest at multiple levels. It could even be argued that nothing is more important for ensuring a just and thriving future than aligning the natural self-interest of individuals, corporations, and nation-states with the wellbeing of the body of life as a whole. The outcome of this shift would be to make competition co-operative, self-interest nontoxic, and society wise.

One could thus conclude that humanity’s “Great Work” in the 21st century is to co-create global and bioregional governance such that individuals and groups that benefit the common good benefit themselves, while individuals and groups that disregard or harm the common good are taxed, penalized, or face moral strictures.

By organizing and managing ourselves so that the impact of parts on the whole, for good or ill, are reflected back to the parts, we shall create a system through which individuals, corporations, and nations are incentivized to do what is just and ecological – while simultaneously being incentivized to not do what is unjust or un-ecological. This aligning of self-interest at multiple scales would ensure that what is perceived as the cheaper, easier, more convenient thing to do is also the right thing to do, rather than the harmful thing, as it is now. This re-incentivizing of societal goods and services to comport with human nature (as it really is, not as we wish it would be) would also help all elements of society to access and make decisions based on humanity’s collective intelligence (also here and here).

The promise of the Evidential Reformation, as I see it, is this: As the world’s great religious traditions come to honor and celebrate evidence as divine guidance, and big history as our common creation story, they will begin to wield their moral authority in ways that assist, rather than resist, the passage of our species out of the desert of destructive and unsustainable adolescence and into the promised land of contributing and fulfilled maturity.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Larry the Lounge Lizard

by Shane Dowd

Isn't it neat to know that we all have lizards and furry li'l mammals living in our heads, running our lives?

Ok, maybe not exactly, but as we learn more and more about evolutionary brain science and evolutionary psychology, as well as gain more evidence about our amazing ability to rationalize and self-deceive, the analogy becomes less fantasy and more spot-on than we might imagine.

A person might be inclined to be a bit worried at the thought of scaly lizards and furry creatures running amuck, inside our brains. However, to me, this news is far from disconcerting. In fact, this knowledge gives me compassion to lighten up on myself and others when our "inner animal" or "shadow" nature, or "darkside" flares up, and wisdom about how to live my life in spite of being a human being with mismatched instincts in a world of supernormal stimuli.)

I invite you (yes YOU reading this post) to think about those times when you have felt deep shame and condemnation for certain aspects of yourself and others. You know the feeling, deep inside, that despises the part of you that you keep hidden from others? Those lustful feelings that you "shouldn't" be feeling, those food cravings that you just can't control? What if all those urges were actually perfect? Not as some "airy-fairy" new-age proclamation that "you're perfect just the way you are," but as an actual fact that modern science has uncovered?

What if this "dark" part of yourself that lusts and hungers out of control is actually perfectly adapted to serve an evolutionary role? What if that very instinct is the very reason you even exist? After all, if your ancient ancestors didn't have those very same instincts, they wouldn't have been motivated to seek as much food as they could in preparation for the famine, or go chase after the pretty cavewoman (well..."pretty" might be stretching it for a cavewoman :-). My friends, it's time to turn and give a big ol' hug to our "shadows!"

To me, that is what an evolutionary perspective provides: the ability to compassionately look at yourself and others, "flaws" and all, and KNOW that you are perfect...that is, perfectly adapted for the environment your brain evolved in, I should say.

To me, this knowledge has been personally and relationally transformative. I can now plainly see, often in the moment, the lizard, mammal, and monkey that are pulling on the levers and dials of my thoughts and actions, while my higher brain (neocortex) rationalizes every move and pretends IT is running the show!

Also, knowing that these instincts (for safety, sustenance, and sex) have refined and ingrained themselves for MILLIONS OF YEARS, I see what I am up against. The words "precautionary measures" start to seem like a really good idea...

After all, do I really think that if I try to fight against these urges, or condemn them, that they will be any less potent? Do I really think I don't have to put in place any structures to override these primitive urges (using accountability, social support, etc), that this lizard / monkey / animal won't get its way sometimes (or most of the time in all likelihood?)


In terms of the oldest part of our brain (the reptilian brain)... When I think that, in effect, there is a little lizard (I call him Larry) inside the deepest part of my brain, who desires to eat sugary, fatty, salty food and wants to mate with every attractive female that he sees, it suddenly becomes dramatically easier to be one step ahead of him, while smiling at his wily ways.

When a beautiful babe walks by, Larry chimes in, "Hey, look at her! Maybe she'll look back at you, which could lead to some innocent flirting, which could lead to... (you know where Larry is going with this one. :-)

Equipped with this knowledge about "Larry" and what he wants, compared to what I am actually committed to, instead of indulging his every whim I can now chuckle, make a joke about Larry's primal urges (often with my girlfriend, which is SUCH a gift to both have this knowledge), and move on with my day.

Also, regarding Larry's penchant for sugary, salty, and fatty foods, this knowledge allows me to put in place the support that will have me making wise nutrition and exercise choices (accountability around sticking with an exercise program, stocking my house only with 90% healthy options, so that Larry isn't tempted, etc).

I know that millions of years of evolution backing these urges for sugar, salt, and fat is nothing to trifle with!

To me, this understanding is vital for having exactly the kind of life I want and relationships that truly work. I now see plainly what inner forces are in me, what they are likely to pull me towards, and what I need to do or put in place to make wise, healthy, integrous choices.


P.S. I want to give a shout-out to my homey, "Larry the Lounge Lizard." You got me a long way ol' boy! But you can relax for now. I promise there will be food and fornicating in your future!

P.P.S. For more information about Larry and the other animals inside your brain, check out all the amazing resources on this page!

The above was written by Shane Dowd. (It's his very first blog post.) Click on Shane's name on this page for more background on him (and to see his gorgeous girlfriend).