Thursday, March 10, 2011

Choices and Our Brains: A Positive View

In my last post, I wrote about a view which would say that some people are innately bad so that even their "good" choices become "bad" by virtue of their innate bad nature. In this post, I will present a much more positive view as expressed by Karen Armstrong in her latest book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

First, I would like to mention that Karen has studied the religions of the world, and has found at the core of each an understanding that the heart of God or the Transcendent or the Universe is compassion. Karen has so many wonderful and right-on things to say about compassion.

Let me begin with Karen's definition of compassion. I will quote her definition from page 9 below, with the addition of bullet points to make the elements of compassion stand out:

But "compassion" derives from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning "to suffer, undergo, or experience." So "compassion" means

  • "to endure [something] with another person,"
  • to put ourselves in somebody else's shoes,
  • to feel her pain as though it were our own,
  • and to enter generously into his point of view.

Karen explains that compassion is natural to human beings. We feel good when we behave compassionately, and life flows more smoothly and positively when we treat each other with compassion.

Karen also explains the uneasy co-existence of two parts of our brain:

  • The hypothalamus (a very ancient part of our brain located at its base and stemming from our reptilian ancestors)
  • The neocortex (a more recently evolved area of the brain)

Karen says that the hypothalamus is concerned with feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproducing - in other words, with survival. It is ruthlessly selfish. It strongly pulls us to consider ourselves and our own safety and well-being first. It also evolved to handle conditions of scarcity, so the hypothalamus will prompt us to continue hoarding even when we already have more than enough.

The neocortex, on the other hand, says Karen, allows us to reason, to think about the world and ourselves, to stand aside from and consider the instinctive reactions of our hypothalamus, to make choices about our behavior. The neocortex allows us to align ourselves consciously with the Heart of God, of the Transcendent, of the Universe - which is a Heart of Compassion.

What this means, says Karen Armstrong, is that we have a choice: to behave at the level of our hypothalamus, that is, instinctively and selfishly with concern for our own survival, or to behave at the level of our neocortex, that is, compassionately. Karen stresses that the pull of our survival-oriented hypothalamus is strong, so we would do well not to castigate ourselves for our feelings of fear and anger and our impulses to selfish behavior, but rather to accept them with compassion for ourselves, realizing from whence they stem. We do not, however, have to choose selfish behavior. We can calmly acknowledge selfish impulses, stand aside from them, and choose compassionate behavior.

In other words, IT IS NOT A QUESTION OF BEING INNATELY BAD. It is a question of choosing instinctive and selfish behavior associated with the hypothalamus, or choosing conscious and compassionate behavior associated with the neocortex. This is very hopeful!

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