It seems that human evolution made a problematic turn about ten-thousand-years ago. It’s landed us in a cul-de-sac of pervasive violence toward one another and our life-support system. We are in the midst of the sixth great extinction spasm. This one is the result of our twisted thinking.
We have devolved to the point of killing one another in crazed attempts to protect ourselves. Meanwhile, we destroy our ground water, soils, air and our relationship with the sun. We torture animals raised for food, performance and companionship, vilify healing plants and those who use them, all while justifying our actions as economically and socially necessary to our survival. By any standard of mental health, this behavior is stark-raving mad.
What’s causing us humans to follow hierarchical leaders who either preach outright bigotry or, more covertly, act it out through policies that support continued environmental and social degeneration as we race toward the finish line of carbon emission induced temperature rise? 2017 is the deadline for stopping all carbon emissions, if life as we understand it is to survive. It’s our choice.
An actionable piece of the puzzle appears to lay in our neuroplasticity. This refers to our nervous system’s enormous capacity to rewire itself to adapt to environmental, social and biological cues. This allows us to evolve mentally and socially at lightening speeds compared to functions that require structural changes. It’s one of the reason’s we’ve thrived. It’s also how we make enormous mistakes, and thus far, correct our course to insure survival.
We’re overdue for a major correction. We humans have done it before in concert with the plants and critters with whom we shared territories. Our interdependency is woven through our collective evolution. We shared stem parents with horses fifty-six-million years ago. In the way-back time, we were siblings. We have evolved parallel to one another at times and were bonded at the hip at others. We even made it through another climate change event together. We’re wired for sudden course shifts of the likes we humans are generating now.
As grimly ridiculous as the geopolitical landscape appears in this moment, we have the ingredients necessary to shift the wheel of destiny from destruction toward redemption. The responsibility rests on our shoulders. Humans, acting as if we were granted dominion over the earth, created this debacle. Our relearning how interdependent we are with those with whom we share this life-support system has become essential to our survival.
Nearly two decades ago, Leonard Shlain, M.D., a neurosurgeon, came out with a great book entitled The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. In it he postulated that the huge change in human culture wrought by literacy, which arose about ten-thousand-years ago, was at the root of this trend. When we humans came in from the wild, we developed agriculture, which for the first time allowed us to stay in one place and accumulate stuff, including new skills. Literacy was one of the outcomes. According to Dr. Shlain, our nervous systems accommodated to reading and writing by shifting from right-hemisphere dominance to the left hemisphere.
As right-hemisphere-dominant hunter-gathers, we processed our world in terms of relationships. In those times, we were acutely aware of and dependent on everybody with whom we shared our worlds. As left-hemisphere dominant agrarians, we became hierarchically driven. Might suddenly became right in the human psyche.
Our cultural evolution reflects this. Instead of viewing connections with others as co-creative endeavors, we began to view other species and even humans of divergent colors, political or religious affiliations as threats to our stability. Plants, animals and even the elements of life and other humans came to be viewed as commodities instead of our collective life-support system. Bigotry was codified into our nervous systems after artificial racial boundaries were drawn based on skin color. The monotheistic religions that replaced their shamanic polytheistic predecessors deified literacy as they demonized the natural order of life on earth. These values were inculcated into the cultures around the globe by force.
The solution to pollution became dilution in “advanced” cultures. This wasn’t too bad until our population bloom, that began in the early 1900’s, as a result of our cleverness at harnessing the power of oil and other toxins cooked up in laboratories to protect mankind from the ravages of nature. Our life-support system became our enemy as our neuronal nets became ever-more tightly controlled by left-hemisphere logic. Now, we each carry a toxic soup of chemistry that we haven’t evolved to capacity to detoxify from. Our bodies, minds and spirits don’t know what to do with them. Many of the ingredients are neurotoxins that reduce our motivation while increasing our robotic complacency in the face of extinction.
The polytheistic healers, who knew the importance of our inter-dependency and respected the power of plants, social and environmental interventions, were systematically wiped out. Among Christians, these healers were branded as witches, then publicly tortured and executed in the name of God. The Church assigned the task of healing to barbers, who became the predecessors of modern physicians. Medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the States.
Other monotheistic cultures used other methods to the same effect. Sexism, racism and classism emerged in the context of this agrarian cultural evolution, most likely as a result of the alteration in which side of our brain first processed incoming data. We abdicated our talent for energetic communion with matters of the moment for a sense of control over everything that impinges on our moments, or might. The harder we try to protect ourselves, the faster we poison ourselves and all who share the life-support system.
Recently, neuroscientists have discovered another neurological trait that may be contributing to the collapse of life on earth as we know it. Apparently, stress is epigenetic. So, when our ancestors experienced stress beyond their nervous systems’ ability to metabolize, their genetic codes were altered. This made their off-spring more susceptible to the out-sized stress reactions that we currently refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Further, it appears that stress accumulates in the gene code. PTSD causes its bearer to become hyper vigilant to potential threats. This has utility for survival, at least until the stress reactions become so severe that they evolve into a survival threat. This appears to be where we’re at now.
The two most common psychological sequels to unsuccessfully treated PTSD are Borderline and Narcissistic Personality Disorders, though other character disorders are linked to the cumulative effects of stress on the nervous system. These diseases cause their holders to try to control their environments and everybody in them. They tend to be self involved, sometimes to the point of being unable to process the reality of others’ lives. Some become dangerous to themselves and others. The cumulative effects are the development of cultures that are as dangerous as the deluded individuals who comprise them.
These diseases are rooted in our nervous systems, not reflections of individuals’ lack of character. Those who have PTSD and go on to develop confused thoughts and behaviors are no more responsible for their illnesses than those who get cancer. Both are diseases of civilization.
Culture plays a huge role in human health. Character disorders have at their roots a need to control the perceptions and behavior of the other(s) in a genetically-driven effort at self preservation. Dominion has become our default setting for managing escalating stress levels. The individual physiological changes wrought by inherited stress-prone DNA plus the absorption of a mind-bending array of chemistry experiments plus the neurological changes associated with our adaptations from hunting and gathering to agrarian life and now the digital age has brought us to the edge of extinction. It’s time to look at what saw us through crises of equal magnitude before.
Mario Martinez, Psy.D. put out an easily accessible book and CD set entitled The Mind Body Code a few years ago. Mario is a psychoneuroimmunologist who studies how cultural beliefs effect human biology, psychology and spiritual development. His work explodes the myth of separation between our individual and collective mental and physical health. Science shows us that mental, physical and cultural health are inextricably connected. Preliterate cultures didn’t seem to make a distinction between them.
Our barbers-turned-physicians took another route. They opted to divide our bodies, minds and spirits into their constituent parts. Various medical disciplines know little of what their colleagues who deal with other organ systems or healing techniques are up to. We wind up having our health tended to by those who have no training or experience relating to us as whole beings who are inextricably connected to our social and environmental contexts. How could they? They’ve come to maturity in a culture that’s inadvertently thrown itself off balance through it’s attention to the parts at the expense of the whole.
In the States, we’ve seen escalatingly poor outcomes as a result of policies born of left-brain hierarchical thinking married to culturally embedded PTSD. Understandably, people of color are infuriated and terrorized by longstanding policies that result in their systematic murder and/or incarceration at the hands of our police state. Our health care system is broken. It has devolved into yet another powerful agent of social control and a hugely powerful money maker while humans and animals are dropping at a record rate from diseases born of pollution and climate change.
Those employed by the state to “protect and serve” are as subject to the health effects of stress as anyone else. Since it’s their job to deal with highly stressful situations, their nervous systems tend to become compromised too. They can develop hair triggers when dealing with anyone who appears to be a member of ‘them’ instead of ‘us.’
Innocent policemen were killed after a week that showed us images of innocent black men being murdered by policemen. The cop killer was a veteran with a heavy-duty case of PTSD. Around and around we go as human culture sinks deeper into chaos wrought by our addiction to the delusion of dominance. Might this Dominance Delusion be a compensation for our collective PTSD?
Is this a result of a built in expiration date? Might we be in the throes of planned obsolescence decreed by our creator, as the Christians would have us believe? Maybe that belief arose out of fear of these underlying vulnerabilities. Its prevalence functions to reinforce our individual and collective neuronal nets toward the self-destructive behavior that threatens to end our life-support system. Do we have what it takes to rewire our neuronal nets to thrive instead of hate, fear, retaliate, and ultimately, destroy our life-support system? Healing this is a tough challenge, but one within our reach.
I look at the current state of affairs as an opportunity to repair a longstanding processing error. This is fixable. We’ve dawdled far too long as we’ve indulged our Dominion Delusion to ever-increasing states of ridiculousness. The good news is that the situation has reached a point where the survival of life as we know it is threatened. This kicks our motivation into its highest gear.
Fixes are available. The only thing standing between social health and our current rush toward extinction is the will to re-examine our assumptions about how life works. It’s not easy to change one’s mind. People do it all the time though. If addicts can recover with the support of a community of others in the same boat, we can ditch our fossil fuel addiction and our Dominion Delusion together. The first step is to take a look at our belief that we’re in control of the action. The critter and plant allies who share our life-support system are standing by to lead us back toward balance.
What Works? What Doesn’t?
I’ve learned a few things along the trail: Psychotropic pharmaceuticals, for the most part, do far more damage than good. It’s also clear that office-based individual talk therapy can be helpful, though rarely sufficient. It can just as easily be harmful. Group work is usually a more effective psychotherapeutic intervention than one-to-one work. Involving companion animals in psychotherapeutic work is an even more effective intervention than human-to-human. Horses are apex healers for humans. Plant medicine works better and has fewer side effects than psychotropic pharmaceuticals in managing mental illnesses. Most mental illnesses require both physiological and psychological interventions to be successfully treated.
Of course, these methods need to be well executed to work. For the clinician, it’s no easy matter to bring one’s skills up to speed because there’s little support for it in the health care system. In fact, when we stray from the 50-minute hour and/or turn away from big pharma, we risk losing our licenses. Even so, the knowledge is out there. There are great clinicians using these methods and teaching others. Cross-pollination of ideas and skill sets is critical now. Healers need to be nimble enough to jump across and beyond academic disciplines that were born of left-hemisphere dominant thinking. To achieve this, we have to be willing to surmount strenuous cultural barriers embedded in our institutions and individual neuronal nets.
In health care, there’s a rule that each licensed practitioner must perform to “community standards.” These standards are largely shaped by pharmaceutical lobbyists and sales forces. No matter where these standards are set, failure to abide by them can get a practitioner’s license pulled if a wrinkle arises in the course of an alternative treatment. That’s a huge professional incentive to turn a blind eye to poor results and incoherent logic in research design and therapeutic parameters. The community standard for psychotherapeutic care currently involves one-to-one or group talk therapy and/or psychotropic pharmaceuticals. Never mind that the pharmaceuticals don’t work and cause life-threatening side effects. Isolating people in little boxes with a psychotherapist who pathologizes their most personal travails for 50-minutes at a clip works a little better than the pharma approach, but gives the message that the problem is rooted in there being something bad and wrong about the patient. Neither approach effectively addresses the real issues at play. Both have great potential to inflict harm.
We humans became ever-more out of balance in our thinking by routing more and more incoming data through our left-hemisphere at the expense of our ability to relate to the co-creators of our life-support system. It’s time to heal this imbalance. Happily, interventions that work can be fun and readily lend themselves to being integrated into daily life.
Mindfulness Practices have been used by every spiritual tradition throughout the ages. They prepare humans for virtuous lives that ripen them into wisdom bearers for the culture. Of late, we humans have replaced wisdom for money as the standard of a well-lived life.
In this moment, we’re uniquely situated to retrieve our wisdom from the morass. Fifty-six million Baby Boomers are in the process of becoming elders in the west. We’re living on average longer than previous generations. This represents a huge reservoir of potential wisdom. To access it, we’ll need to let go of our aversion to aging. Contrary to popular belief, aging brings a host of health benefits to those who’ve lived mindful and virtuous lives. Elderhood is a distinct developmental stage that we’re just beginning to explore.
To achieve a healthy elderhood, a foundation of mindfulness practices is essential. The sooner a person begins to cultivate mindfulness the better, but it’s never too late. The practice can take many forms. Any regular practice that shuts down our internal dialogue and keeps us gratefully present in the physicality of the moment will do. I favor focusing on relationships with the plants and critters who populate my world or those of my clients. Working with humans and their companion critters and/or their gardens is a lovely, simple set up for establishing long-term mindfulness practices.
Companion and wild critters respond immediately to humans who can be present with them in their worlds. Once they get that you’re not there to control or hurt them, they relax. When we learn how to take the next step, sharing the wonder of whatever is up now with members of other species, their bodies ease. Often they yawn or snort, apparently to discharge the stress that arises when they have to interact with us.
We’ve conditioned them to fear us by confining and controlling their every move. When we can set aside our Dominion Delusion even for a few minutes a day, the shift in their bodies and attitude brings us tremendous rewards that we registere somatically. When they relax, we do too. Something primal rises in our consciousness. I call it relief. This is a self-reinforcing state-of-mind that our neuronal nets want to replicate. One can almost smell new synaptic connections forming.
We and the critters we share our lives and territories with can begin to establish new formats for relating with one another. We can negotiate with them instead of carrying the heavy mantel of control over them. This opens us to the forgotten fact of our interdependency: We don’t have to be in charge all the time. This is a responsibility most companion animals are willing and able to share. Given the opportunity, they have much to teach us.
I have worked primarily with horses, cats and dogs. Each brings a unique set of talents. Horses are apex healers for humans. This may be because fifty-six-million years ago, we shared stem parents with them. We’ve evolved parallel to and in conjunction with one another since. Horses are well endowed with mirror neurons, which cause them to experience and reflect the emotional state of those in their territories.
Humans and dogs are well supplied with mirror neurons too. Cats have them, but apparently not in the concentration of dogs or humans. Mirror neurons enable our companion critters to get where we’re coming from, often better than we do. Once we bring a mindfulness practice into our relationships with them, they relax enough to show us who they are and what they can teach us. When we relax too, we will see a reflection of our psyches in the horses’ behavior.
Once a human has been in mindful connection with a companion, work or wild critter over a period of time, s/he begins to change his/her relationship with the Dominion Delusion. This may rattle our human thought cages. It calls into questions assumptions about reality that are so deeply embedded in our culture that it might bring up anxiety early on. With group or individual support, this usually manifests as a tiny speed bump. Without support, things can go sideways at this juncture. I learned to let folks know that this is a common early reaction before it has a chance to come to fruition. This gives us a framework to deal with it.
Horses’ size and emotional volatility give them additional advantages. To the uninitiated, horses are scary up close. Even the most seasoned equine veterans shift their consciousness toward mindfulness in their presence because it’s safer and more productive. This automatically invites us to become more mindful. Too often though, this natural progression is thwarted by our culturally conditioned Dominion Delusion.
We become aware of where horses are in relation to us. Our internal dialogues tone down to accommodate our need to establish safe boundaries and effective communication. When they’re met with mindfulness, well-kept horses respond to humans with friendly curiosity. They want/need to know who’s sharing their world. If they are met with fear, impatience or resentment, they respond in a like manner. Whatever emotional state humans bring to horses, they reflect it right back. From a therapeutic standpoint, working with horses brings the skills of a world-class diagnostician to the party.
Dogs and cats bring many of the same benefits of horses and different ones. Cats and dogs are easier to incorporate into our homes so we spend more time with them. This makes it easier to make places for them within the family circle. As we practice mindfully relating with them, other household members get to bear witness and may be motivated to get with it. Conversely, dogs and cats are smaller in stature which can make it more difficult to shake our Dominion perspectives in these relationships.
Dogs and cats bring different skills. There are many old sayings about cats and dogs. A paraphrase of one is, Dogs are for people who want/need to be adored and cats are for those who are willing to become their staff. At this point in my evolution, I prefer to live among cats. By nature, they offer continuous opportunities to question our Dominion Delusion in its many manifestations.
We domesticated dogs and horses. Cats domesticated humans. Apparently, we’re apex rodent wranglers for cats.
According to the tenants of ancient Egyptian spirituality, cats were revered as higher-order beings. It was thought that they had arrived from another universe to guide our spiritual development. They may have been right.
A few years ago, a new vet set up shop in our rural community. When I brought in my cats for a check up, he told me that he thought cats were from another planet because physiologically, they responded differently than any other known species. After getting to know him a bit, I doubt that he was aware of Egyptian thought on the subject.
Anyone who feeds cats will have a relationship with them. It’s trickier to have great relations with them. When we approach cats in the context of our dominion assumptions, life gets annoying and messy fast. Conversely, when we engage cats mindfully, we open a door to wonders beyond words.
A cat’s purr is at a frequency that accelerates body-mind-spirit healing. When we or they are ill or injured, their purr significantly speeds healing. Bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, connective tissue, minds and spirits all respond to their purr. All one has to do to access a healing purr job is to create a good relationship with a cat. It’s simple; just be present with them in the moment without an agenda. Give them room to negotiate with you over their lifestyle.
Dogs have a servile side that can feed our Dominion Delusion. Special care needs to be taken to counteract this. When we take care, the benefits can be awesome. When we don’t, sharing life with dogs can simply reinforce the ubiquitous cultural reinforcements for our sense of dominion.
The differences between dogs whose humans engage them mindfully and those who don’t are stark. All dogs are loyal. The mindfully handled dog bumps loyalty toward devotion. This isn’t the slavish devotion one sees in abused critters. That appears to be more like a Stockkholm Syndrome than spiritual devotion. Dogs who have freely chosen to bond wholeheartedly will see their human(s) through whatever life throws at them. A dog will never tire of being at the side of her mindful human.
Most people who keep critters as companion animals love them. Many love them to the exclusion of humans. This doesn’t mean that our love is manifested in healthy ways for them or us. All critters, including humans, have basic needs that require satisfaction if they’re to enjoy healthy, happy lives. Those who love the critters with whom they share their lives and don’t fully get their needs, inevitably run into difficulties.
We all need good, clean food and water, shelter, companionship with our own kind, a degree of autonomy and reliable, consistent interdependence. Each species has its own set of criteria for how these needs must be tailored. Horse, dogs and cats require specific diets and have unique social intimacy and territorial needs. Caring for cats as if they were dogs or horses doesn’t work any better than eating like a horse works for people. Humans who wish to share healthy bonds among other species need to get this. No horse, dog or cat can be fully present with a human who can’t or won’t act on this.
Confining another species in a territory that’s not designed to meet their specific needs, so they can spend their lives waiting for us to bestow our beneficence upon them, isn’t love. It’s captivity. This reflects our Dominion Delusion.
True love is open handed, not controlling. It’s curious, respectful and willing to negotiate boundaries and choice. Few humans are capable of manifesting healthy love consistently. We’re in desperate need of healing our love mojo.
The critters who populate our lives respond immediately and dramatically when we get it right, even if we can only hold on to that state of mind for a few seconds. This is sufficiently reinforcing to propel us into practices that can untangle our love knots.
Our yards, gardens, parks and wilderness trails provide other avenues for mindfulness practice. Here’s where we find plants that evolved alongside us. These are the biochemical geniuses of our world. Plants generate an array chemicals that attract what they need and repel threats. Plants are subject to many of the same threats and needs as us, so their chemistry often helps us.
Modern-day pharmacology likes to isolate plant constituents, synthesize them artificially, then give them, often in extreme doses, to treat our ailments. This usually causes imbalance. The presenting problem may get fixed, but the stage is often set for far worse issues down the road. Plant medicine, as practiced by our ancestors, uses the whole plant, sometimes several to work synergistically, to bring the organism back to homeostasis. With its constituent parts intact, the plants perform this function seamlessly. Built into their biochemistry are buffers for the problematic issues of their constituents.
Humans have been using medicinal plants forever. We’re attracted to their beauty, medicine, fragrances and the nutrition they provide. Plants that grow where we are, have made biochemical adjustments for the soils, water, sunlight, winds, predators and beneficials that share our territories. They happily share this fine tuning with those who pass, including us. All we need to do is to eat, smell or rub them into our flesh. Of course, it’s critical to know how to engage the plants in ways that work for them and us.
When we consistently approach plants and other animals with our minds fully present in the moment, their wisdom eventually becomes available to us. To my receptor sites, plant language is far more subtle than that of critters. I had to practice among a variety of critters for decades before I began to learn how to tune into the vegatative realms reliably.
It’s always a two-way street. We humans have given back to the plants and critters who make our lives viable until recently. We are interdependent. When the practice of mindfulness generates virtue, we garner the wisdom necessary to comprehend and act on this.
In following chapters I will go into greater depth on how to achieve wisdom by shifting our mindsets toward our plant and critter allies. Just thinking of them as allies instead of possessions is a critical first step. This is the beginning of reclaiming our connections.