Has Our Brain Evolved Enough To Show Us The Way To a Better Life?

In the last post we looked at how the reptilian brain evolved to solve problems of survival and how we are still influenced by that pattern of behaviour; since what is encoded in our genes cannot be changed, future life forms can only evolve by building onto what we have already inherited from the previous life forms. I also mentioned how the  mammals attempted to adapt to new situations and what some of the drawbacks were  associated with their strategies. Today I want to look at how humans have evolved, what strategies have been adopted by us and if they are working for us to live a good life.

Remember with primitive brain, as I mentioned in my previous posting, there is a quick, aggressive and  automatic response in a given situation; either to satisfy a desire or to protect oneself or to protect a territory . These are strategies that got evolved and developed over millions of years; and have a survival value. That’s why we still carry them in our genes today. They have become like a game plan for life. Overtime these game plans or strategies have become very elaborate and there are components in our minds that are quick to pick on certain types of information and then helps direct our attention, feelings, reasoning and behaviour. These patterns of behaviour can be activated quite fast and sometimes become active before we are even aware of them and you find yourself asking ” why did I do that, what was I thinking ?”

Lets looks at some of the strategies/ archetypes and how they influence us in everyday life. Quite often some of these guiding strategies and archetypes have element of a seductive quality to them because we like the way it makes us feel and its mode of thinking. Let say for example we belong to a particular religion, we like the way we feel about it and its way of thinking. This suggests that we have accepted the archetype of the religion and identify ourselves as belonging  to it. It also means that this religious archetype will fill us with passion and direct our thinking so that we believe and follow all its teaching. So far so good. Now, suppose another religion who we had been working with for many years on joint projects, suddenly started to advocates for having abortion in certain situations and your religion thinks allowing an abortion in any situation is a serious error.We will automatically , without thinking , starts to condemn this new position taken by the other religion because we have already endorsed the archetype of our religion. When we first endorsed  the archetype of our religion no one at that time advised you of the risks of losing your own individuality or the potential of violence due to disagreement with other religious groups. One simply gets infused with the desire to belong, be part of , follow and conform. We forget we maybe limiting our way of being.

Lets take another example of girls with blonde hair. You say “she is starting a new job and she is a blonde.” Immediately image of this person flashes across our minds without even giving it a thought. Or a blonde girl may say I can’t do mathematics because I am blonde and we immediately understand her reasoning. It’s because there is an archetype about girls with blood hair. You can see these strategies and archetype limits our thinking and therefore our behaviour ; but they do communicate information which can either be accurate in certain situation or very distorted in others. We can also see we can easily fall in with archetypes of  feeling and thinking; which doesn’t allow us to think critically about the assumptions we adopt. Knowing this can lead to some very important insight about the whole nature of our minds.

Let us see now see how the human brain has been improved so that our behaviour is not just a destructive reaction triggered by impulses of our desires? The major new abilities are the use of language and symbols, to think things through, to reason, to reflect, imagine new possibilities and even impossibilities. These new abilities allows us  to stand back from and reflect on what is going on in our minds, and in what we are feeling and doing,that we can do things differently then what our impulse dictates. This potentially  gives us a great flexibility in how we choose to enact different desires and motives. For example, we can separate sexual pleasure from the consequence of the act by using contraception; acquire status and put off having children altogether ; or become celibate in pursuit of enlightenment.The point is than that the desires may not have changed that much over time but because of  our human brains, we can invent thousands of ways to act them out or to refrain from them,which is both a blessing and a curse.

So what can we do to improve ours lives so that we are at peace, live without fear and with ease ? We can learn to understand how the old strategies and archetypes influence us. We can then learn to stand back from identifying with any archetypal process and instead, first think of ourselves as sentient life form that owe our current existence, experiences and competencies to the millions of other life forms that have gone before us. Next, we can identify ourselves with other human. We have all ‘simply arrived here’ and are trying to do the best we can with the brain we neither designed nor, to some degree, understand. We can recognize that we have enormous capacities for being benevolent or malevolent,which we need to understand with compassion. Only then should we start to think about ourselves in more local terms, such as our religious or political group. Our mind seems to be wired in the opposite direction, to stir up strong passions of identification with our local group. BUT it is understanding how we work against those passions generated by selfish interests AND by identifying ourselves as human being in the flow of life that can become key to our action for a better life.


The Compassionate Mind  By Paul Gilbert 

Origins of impulsive desires, sexual conquest, aggression, enforcement of ownership and control.

In the previous posts I mentioned that we will look in-depth how our minds were designed and why they can be full of difficult feeling such as anxiety , anger, despair and unhelpful or destructive desires, as well as of course , love and kindness.

The in-depth will give us better understanding of our mind. Lets start from just after the beginning of time when the first microbe appeared on earth more than billions of years ago. Initially these microbes were nothing more than genetic codes, they replicated and died generation after generations. Slowly over time new, more complex life forms appeared with gene mutation and successive replication. The job of these simple life form was to replicate and build more complex systems. Today, this sort of process where genes interest is to replicate and build new systems may seem like gene has a selfish interest in passing its information to the next generation ( selfish gene theory ). But this sort of view can only be appreciated billions of years later; at the time these simple genes were just replicators and builders of new systems. Over time new biological systems evolved that they could move; and specialization inside their bodies appeared which allowed them to be attracted and motivated by certain things. From this comes the systems that the evolutionist says supports the four Fs’; feeding, fighting, fleeing and ..fu….reproduction. These than leads to motives for acquiring and defending/ protecting. Notice that the new biological systems are just emerging overtime by playing out a set of laws and processes; there seems to be nothing that is designing these organisms.

As time goes on many life forms become more complex and develop senses for detecting light and sound; limbs to move; cardiovascular and respirator system. Many life form started to eat other life form to survive. We also start to see repeating patterns of behaviour, which are first signs of evolved minds.

Reptiles emerged around 500 millions years ago, and are basically concerned with eating, gaining and defending their territories and mating – the four Fs again. They will threaten any who displays a posture of challenge; leg stiffening and staring for example.  No one has taught them that, they are guided by their reptilian brains that contain blueprint for action and strategies, which are embedded in their genetic codes. This behaviour is not that different from that of men fighting or when they are driven by the urge for dominance, possessions and territories. Carl Jung would come to name these powerful, innate patterns for feeling, thinking and behaviour (e.g.. to seek status, control a territory, find a mate) as ‘ archetypes ‘. Their origins are rooted back many millions of years.

Kent Bailey of Virginia Commonwealth University pointed out that it’s not that difficult to adopt a reptilian view of the world, focused on impulsive desires, sexual conquests, aggression and enforcement of ownership and control. A reptile’s mind is only interested in power, control, food, sex and personal gain. The reptilian mind has no interest in family life, love, play , building trusting alliances or having empathy.

The reptiles‘ strategies and archetypes will not be removed from the genetic code as long as they are successful in passing on genes. There is nothing inherently good or bad about this; it’s simply how evolution is. Later life forms will adapt these struggles, mould them and add to them, but they cannot go back to the drawing board and start again.

Change through evolution can only adapt what has gone before. So in one form or another, concern with power, sex, territories and control continues to live in and through us humans. It was the reptiles’ struggle for life and evolved solutions that have influenced gene flow. They, and the strategies that they followed, are not ‘evil’ but are part of the evolution of life and of the mind to come. Harsh, savage and tragic they may be to our minds but they also comprise the foundations of our evolutionary journey.

About 120 million years ago mammals emerged in the flow of life. With the mammals come new struggles that goes with warm-bloodedness; living in family groups that offer care and protection. Mammals also form status hierarchies rather than strict territorial ones. In some mammal species only one female is able to breed and she suppresses, chases off or even kills competitors. So sexual competition in mammals are driven by the desire to both engage oneself and prevent others from engaging in sex; this tension will texture their lives.

In the next post we will pick it up from here and look at how the archetype works in sexual competition, loyalties and betrayals; just to mention few. We will see many of our desires that flow through us today were not only designed long before us but long before all humans.


The Compassionate Mind.  by  Paul Gilbert

Looking For Nourishing Mind Food

In the last post I talked about how we had little say in the design of our brain and  how we had little control over our minds.  I will elaborate on these themes in the future posts but todays I would like to give you overview on what we can do, so that we are not always at the mercy of our automatic responses. I feel the overview is necessary  at this time because people intuitively know that some of what I said in the last post rings true at some level; and I also sense some urgency of readers wanting to know the possible solution to this predicament in which we find ourselves.

Let start where we left off in the last post; we have a brain that is unique to ourselves, it is the result of the genes we inherited from our parents and the experiences we had in our early life. We will react to a given situation in a very unique way, it will be according to how we have been hard-wired to react by our genes, our experiences and whether we have learned to ‘control’ our impulses. The key to our predicament is how we view ourselves and others in the world.

I want to remind ourselves that all the people in this world had no say in the brain and the mind they find themselves with, we are all in the same boat. Sure some had better childhood experiences than others, some may have ‘ better’ genes for some useful skill; but it all happened by chance. With this realization it is hard for me to blame and condemn myself or others because at some level we have no control over it. I hope no one is going to conclude from this that we are free to behave as we wish without taking any responsibility for our behaviour. Over millions of  years, nature ‘ realized ‘ that we have to control some very raw and aggressive impulses for us to be able to live in a constructive and mutually beneficial way. These aggressive impulses served a very important role in our evolution( which I will elaborate in the future post)and they may still serve us today in some situations but over all things have changed , we have to refine our raw impulses and use them only on a rare occasions where they maybe still quite appropriate. You may wonder about what the nature, through evolutionary process, has equipped us with to deal with these difficult situations ? Well, it is our ability for thinking ahead, being able to stand back from and reflect on what is going on in our minds, and in what we are feeling and doing. It is these special gifts that have evolved over millions of years that allow us to behave differently  from other animals; like crocodile for example. Crocodile  behave in a very predictable way according to it primitive reptilian brain. We too have this reptilian brain, but evolutionary process have added on new parts which allows us to behave and enact our desires in novel ways.

Once we stop blaming others and ourselves we will be freer to genuinely move towards developing the insight , knowledge and understanding we need to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions. None of us is responsible for having brains that is capable of feeling great fear, rage or all kinds of sexual desires. But, learning and practicing compassion will help us feel more content and at peace with ourselves and more concerned for others. I should point out that compassionate behaviour is not just about acting in kind, warm and friendly ways. It’s also about protecting ourselves and others from our own destructive desires and actions;it’s about being assertive , tolerating discomfort and developing courage. We can reason similarly for much wider issues, such as issues about our planet. There are many destructive processes going on that are killing our planet , drilling for oil for example. It is not the posture of  blaming psychology  that would be helpful but instead our genuine desire to nurture and repair  that requires  our attention. Without it, it’s so easy to get stuck in denial or simply get angry and say ‘why should I.’

Paul Gilbert writes …”We can learn to cultivate certain aspect of our minds such as our compassionate mind, which will help us with other aspects of our mind and promote our well-being. We can also become more aware of how our societies may stimulating the selfish ‘me first’ part of ourselves with unrealistic fantasies and desires and setting us up to want more  and more and, at the same time, to feel more disappointed and personal failures.”

You can see from the general theme that we have to learn some important skills if we are to feed our brain and mind with the nourishing food that would be healthy not just for our own mind but also for others who share our world with the same predicaments. More in the future posts.


The compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert.

We Are Not To Blame For What Goes On In Our Mind.

You may have noticed that what goes on in your mind you may not have much control over. In many ways much of whats goes on in our mind is not our fault or even our intention. It is amazing that nearly 3000 years ago Buddha had this insight about the mind and come to the same fundamental conclusion; that because we have no control over whats in our minds then it implies that it’s not our fault or our intention to have those thought in our mind.

It is now well accepted that two major factors that influences us are our genes and our early environment; and we have no control over neither of them. We are hard-wired, so to speak, by our genes and our early childhood experiences but had no say in the process. We were not consulted, no one asked our permission. But it is the interaction of the genes and the early childhood experiences that gives us our sense of “being oneself “; this experience of oneself may vary from feeling amazing to feeling severely traumatized, and we had no say in the matter.

Even though we had no say in the design of  ourselves and we have little control over our mind we can still take responsibility in a new way so that we can live in and work with such a mind. It is like taking responsibility for our physical body; we had no choice over what body we were given but we still have the responsibility of looking after it to keep it healthy. We have to eat right, exercise etc. The same is true for our mind, we are learning that our brain and mind need certain kind of input to function well.

We will explore what kind of input is required for our brain and mind to function well. But until than it is important to realize that we are not to blame  about whats going on in our minds. We can be kind and compassionate to ourselves.


The Compassionate Mind. by  Paul Gilbert

Planting Seeds in Our Minds – Spring Time

Its spring time and we may be excited about planting seeds in our gardens. We are likely to be mindful about what seeds we saw and water, because it’s the fruits of theses seeds that we will enjoy; and want others to enjoy too. We may even be able to imagine the future and see ourselves, our friends and family enjoying the  harvest.

Nguyen Anh-Huong, a Buddhist Monk, uses the garden as a metaphor for the mind and says…

“…Our mind is a field in which every kind of seed is sawn; seeds of compassion, joy and hope; seeds of sorrow, fear and despair. Everyday our thoughts, words and our deeds plant new seeds in the field of our consciousness and what these seeds generate becomes the substance of our life. There are both wholesome and unwholesome seeds in our mind field sawn by ourselves, our parents , our school,  our ancestors and our society. If you plant wheat, wheat will grow. If you act in wholesome way you will be happy. If you act in unwholesome way you will water seeds of craving, anger and violence in yourself and others. The practice of mindfulness helps us identify all of the seeds in our consciousness and with that knowledge we can choose to water  only the ones that are most beneficial. As we cultivate seeds of joy and transform seeds of suffering in ourselves, understanding, love, compassion and gratitude will flower.”

Learning How to Fail.

Our society is so obsessed with succeeding and being on the top; and it is in general contemptuous of those who are not interested in this game. We are never taught  in school the most important lesson of life  – how to fail. The psychological studies show that to enhance success we must not focus on the end result but rather focus on the effort one make towards achieving that end. Yet our society is so focus on the results. In sports we only remember who came in first but rarely do we remember who came in second or third. We forget that even if we do well today we may not do so well tomorrow; that success is only temporary.  The moment we are no longer frightened to fail, but take failure as an opportunity to learn from, then we are free to succeed.

How often people don’t try things because they are afraid of failing ? Learning how to fail is not a resignation to become a failure but it is being open to the possibility of failure and learning from it and being appreciative of the effort that was invested towards a given goal. When we focus on the result we invite people to cheat, commonly out of fear. Take government statistic for example, very few people believe them because they don’t tell the whole truth.

Those who are employed get regular personal performance review; under the pretence of being helpful to the employee. But is it really helpful? or is it more to check on the employees that they are meeting their targets; and if the targets are met then they will be increased for the next year. There is always a perpetual change in big corporation; employees feel uneasy with this constant change; but that is exactly the managements thinking that if you let things settle down then people become comfortable and inefficient. But this is wrong kind of thinking. Not only does it create stress and anxiety  for everyone involved but it is poor for the morale and the ability to develop cooperative working relationship with each other. Resulting in huge costs which are born in term of people getting sick and  having to taking stress leaves; but the inefficiency in these organization never improve with this kind of thinking.

Some have said that an inspired , dedicated , cooperative ‘ all for one and one for all’ team of lesser talented  is likely to beat one made up of those who are gifted but are treated as marketable objects and don’t cooperate.

We have to recognize that our psychologies are rooted in our working and social lives. It is easy not to be mindful of how the negative effects of the working conditions can have adverse effect on our minds and our relationships. We can end up being insensitive to many facets of our lives and just being focused  on winning. We look for the competitive edge at the expense of support, cooperation and integration.


The compassionate mind  by Paul Gilbert.

Knowing Thy Self

This above all; to thine own self be true.
William Shakespeare
If we lose love and self-respect for each other, this is how we finally die.
Maya Angelou
There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.
Benjamin Franklin
I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self.
Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants, and to serve them one’s self?
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Much of your pain is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Khalil Gibran
Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms.
Khalil Gibran
Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.
Sun Tzu
If you do not conquer self, you will be conquered by self.

Napoleon Hill

I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier.
Oprah WinfreyI am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self.
Martin Luther

Absence from those we love is self from self – a deadly banishment.
William Shakespeare






Sense of Self (Me) and We.

If one decide to become part of “we” it doesn’t mean they should lose sense of “me” ; if “me” does gets lost there is a serious problem knowing and developing the sense of self.

In relationships we share patterns of energy with one another which pass through our neural circuits, these patterns of energy carry meaning and information. If this energy and information is not transmitted properly there are serious consequences for knowing the self and being part of the we.

For example, if  the past experience of relationship connections were unreliable, it will prevent us from knowing ourselves and will cause difficulty relating to others as “we.” So as not to risk being hurt again by similar experiences to the past ones, we will shut parts of ourselves off . This may result in us living life of isolation and creating sense of independence which will allow us to survive but it will limit our sense of vitality that we are able to feel as part of we. We may also find that our sense of self to be in an overwhelming upheaval if our experience of past connections with those we depended for comfort  were inconsistent, un-welcomed and intrusive. In this situation we may find ourselves with disabling doubt , anxiety and fear when ever we allow ourselves to become dependent on our loved one for support, caring  and well-being. We may continue to look for a perfect partner but never finding one. We may become highly reactive to ambiguous communication that may fill our daily lives with dread and uncertainty. These experiences prevent us from growing and knowing ourself as a person; they keeps us from being “me.” They also constrain our present experiences and limits us from constructing more helpful future. We have to grow beyond these past memory patterns and move towards integrated state of thriving as both a strong “me” and a vitalizing “we.”

Daniel J. Siegel in his book Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology mentions studies of empathy and reports…

…” individuals who are shown a photograph of a gruesome accident can be overwhelmed in their response and shut down their capacity to help if they ask the question: What if that were me? How would I feel? Instead , if they ask the question, ” How does that person feel?” they are more likely to have the internal resources to extend themselves and help other. The gist of these finding is that if we fuse together you and me, “I” will become lost and overwhelmed. We will become confused, fused – with. Joining is not the same as fusion.”

Various mindful awareness practices are direct way to increase the capacity to become a part of a we without becoming lost as me. ( in the future posts I will say more about these practices.)


Daniel J. Siegel :  Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology

Communication in Relationships

Relationships can be viewed as sharing of energy and information flow. How is that some relationships are happy and lasts for ever and others are always in turmoil and has a very short life ?

The relationships in which each individual respect the internal world of the other without judgement; and has a sense of openness and allows for the possibilities of the others internal world; and also allows it to unfold in its own special way, then these individual will cultivated a loving-compassionate connection that will carry them through good and bad times. This is known as integrative communication in the field of neurobiology; it promotes the development of healthy relationships as it honours the unfolding of the other as a unique person in their own right without trying to change them the way you want them to be; and it fosters a special bond of trust, imbued with love.

When we compassionately help a child to cultivate her own passions and interests as she grows we are helping her to understand herself, so she has a sense of herself as a unique person. During this process we are promoting parent-child relationship which has a healthy elements of integrative communication.When we are connecting with others with feeling of compassion we  share our internal emotional world with theirs. This is how we learn from each other, this is how the child learns from her parents. We continue to grow and learn all our lives in a supportive – nurturing relationships, where vulnerability is respected and truth honoured.

When we are in a truly integrative relationship we not only care for the other during times of stress, but we also take joy in others’ joy and pride in their accomplishments.

To some this form of integrative communication come naturally, but for some it maybe necessary to first develop an internal state of presence. If we are filled with doubt and uncertainty, envy or hatred , then it is hard to achieve the integrative communication that is needed for a joyful and lasting relationships.

We can teach ourselves with mindfulness to become aware of our internal states; we can learn to check inside of ourselves to see if we are in internal state of receptivity or reactivity. If we are in reactive state we have no internal space to be compassionate, to see others point of view or be respectful. We are instead ready to fight – flight – or – freeze. These are not conditions for communication, let alone integrative communication. In contrast, when we are in receptive state our muscles relax and our minds become open to others and to our own internal experiences. We are now likely to be able to engage in integrative communication.

It will not come as a surprise if I tell you that integrative communication is linked to longevity, health and even happiness. The relationships that are integrative thrive and promote a creative expression and vitality.


Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology  by  Daniel J. Siegel.

Learning to thrive with uncertainty is the root of creativity.

I mentioned in my previous post that integration is the basis for health. I explained integration as a situation where all the differentiated parts are  linked together and the information between these parts flow in a flexible, free and harmonious way. So when a brain or a relationship is well-integrated and therefore healthy ,then all of the different centres, each dealing with a unique information or function, are connected and the information flows between them is flexible, free and harmonious.   To understand the dynamics of living creative and healthy life some have suggested a “river of integration” as a metaphor for our flow through life in which the central flow of the river the movement of harmony, and the banks of the river represents the states of chaos and rigidity when we are not in an integrated flow. I should mention that integration is not a state we arrive at and then stay there for ever; rather the integration is a life long process, not a final product. Our life continuously flows and unfolds towards intentional integration but never reaches a fixed endpoint, so we are truly on a journey of growth, understanding and wisdom.

If we are always in the middle of the river where one is fully integrated, life would flow along without much stress or upheaval. In real life the opportunities for growth, creativity,understanding and wisdom comes when we move towards both banks of the river of integration, towards chaos and rigidity; but not get stuck there for long periods of time. On the banks there is uncertainty of chaos and rigidity, one has to be open to see reality in a new way and discover new solutions or insights for growth and creativity.

The romantic notion of an artist’s having to suffer personal pain and turmoil to produce wonderful art is dispelled with careful studies of their inclination and output. The artistic expression is only one form of creativity; here we are viewing creativity as a much larger concept. It includes not only the outward production of art but also includes a deep inward experience of living a creative life. What does it mean to live a deep creative life? It is a notion of way of being. It is being receptive and open to ourselves and others; ready to receive and ready to connect; it means letting go of preexisting judgements and expectations; it means experiencing energy flow within us which give rise to fresh perception, new perspective, and spontaneous gesture. It means having a mindful awareness. It means open to experience as it arises without being swept up by judgements or automatic processes that dominate our perceptions of the whole.We have an habitual inclination to avoid sensing and experiencing with a fresh and open mind, perhaps to gain a sense of control and certainty. But we need to embrace  uncertainty. Learning to thrive with uncertainty is the root of creativity.

Sometimes we get stuck in familiar and repetitive habits that becomes our imprisonment ( cohesive way of being). We may have a fixed view of ourselves which is cohesive and logical stating who we are  and why we are here but not being open to further change; we may experience repeated uncontrollable emotions and impulsive reaction to others which overwhelms us and we pass it off as “hot under the collar” or we may put it down to ” prone to meltdown or rages”. This kind of repeated behaviour gives us rigid patterns to our personality that keep us stuck in rigidity and chaos. The allure to staying in these pattern is certainty and familiarity of the same behaviour;  an attempt to avoid uncertainty. But it is destructive and often create impediment to health and creativity.

In mindful awareness one has to be open and present , in the “here and now” ; the experiences in this way of being are not controllable, not certain, and often not familiar. It requires courage to face the unknown and not withdraw into the familiar destructive habits.  Dr . Daniel J. Siegel in his book Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology puts it this way…

…” Applying this approach to integration is a creative act from the inside out. Living creatively is not about creating a product, but living a life fully present and open to things as they are. Living creatively is also filled with the thrill of possibility and the gratitude for this miracle of being alive. As the self emerges in these new ways with integration, being generous and kind is a natural outcome – towards others, and with ourselves. Beginning with ourselves and extending our open mind to others, integration becomes a way of being present that opens the doors to healthy and creative ways of being in the world.”


Daniel J. Siegel -Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology 

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