Stepping Back as a Step Forward

21 06 2012

On the whole, I suspect nonhuman animals are happier than we are.

Our great step forward is the swollen cortex that we humans are so proud of. However, many animals have, in other respects, a similar brain structure, and the more scientists observe and experiment and allow for the possibility of it, the more they realize that (duh!) creatures with similar brain structures behave and reason in ways similar to us.

Most of the time, we go through life on autopilot, not really thinking about what we are doing, just allowing habit to guide our reactions. It isn’t until we run into something surprising, something unusual, that we kick in the conscious reasoning. We need to make a decision, need to plan and analyze, and we call our cognitive powers into action.

I imagine that other animals do something similar, going though their days doing what comes automatically, conscious of what is happening the way we are conscious when we aren’t really paying attention. Aware and feeling the way we are aware and feeling, using the brain structures they share with us in the same way. They encounter a problem, or something surprising, and they apply their cognitive abilities to figure it out.

Of course, we have a lot more capacity for figuring than they do. And a greater capacity for planning, anticipating, remembering and reasoning. Our conscious minds are always busy, not focusing on the reality of the moment – our autopilot is taking care of that – but on spinning fantasies about what we should do, could do, might do; what should be, could be, might be. In other words, doing what allows us to create complex societies, structures, science and technology.

And anxiety.

I imagine that other animals live pretty much from moment to moment, unburdened by our enhanced ability to recall the past, and thus be haunted by regrets and anguish, and anticipate the future, and thus be filled with worry and anxiety. Our complex cortex allows us to imagine scenarios of danger and threat, to analyze past actions with an eye for errors and culpability.

We have a far greater capacity for ambition and expectation, and the resultant frustration and disappointment. I have no doubt that other animals can experience depression and anxiety, but not to the epidemic, incapacitating extent that humans do. We are cursed with the ability to make ourselves supremely miserable.

But we also can use our amplified cognitive facilities to be mindful of what we are doing to ourselves, and question it. It takes some training, but we can teach ourselves to step back, to resist the impulse to create the illusions that keep us running even from dangers long gone or only imagined. We can return to the reality that actually exists, the reality of the present. Our curse can be our cure.

It would seem to be the next logical step to make.

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One response

21 06 2012
Tameson O'Brien

Exactly. In certain circles the phrases don’t engage the shenpa or don’t tell yourself the story are said as reminders of non-attachment. That’s the key to not making yourself miserable. The moment I figured that out was mind blowing.

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