The whole of humanity is lost in thought, a low simmer— much of the time.
The Age of Enlightenment (16th century) saw an intellectual and philosophical movement, and established the underpinnings for the US Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal.” The mere suggesting a farmer or a shoemaker was equal to emperors (and others in power) must have been a big pill to swallow. Imagine after a lifetime of never questioning the divine rights of kings and popes finding out these were just stories made up by those who stood to gain by it.
What followed was a thinking period that resulted in incredible progress for human beings. After that, each major shift, technology, information, and communication arrived at our doorsteps with less and less lead time. While young people adopted effortlessly to Alexa and Zoom, for some of us these changes felt like a giant stomping through town crushing tools we liked and knew how to use. Darwin hypothesized that animals’ adaptations were a respose to a changing environment, this is true for humans as well.
A new direction is now germinating, trans-humanism. The most recent technological advancements today are aimed at the human body. Genetic engineering, robots implanting worn-out parts in humans, and brain-scans to better understand many physical and mental conditions (such as what motivates us to spend money). Aware of my obsession with technology, and many Amazon impulse shopping nights, it seems this idea is taking root in my brain quickly.
A more subtle trend is also brewing, an inner quest, a spiritual expansion. Instead of building rockets to reach Venus or Mercury, we feel a calling to journey to the core of our being, call it our essence or unconditioned Consciousness. In ancient teachings, it was referred to as the Christ within or Buddha-nature. More and more of us are finally getting it. Seeking contentment will never be found outside ourselves. Trips to visit sacred places in Morocco or Italy can delight, but when we return so does our habitual discontent. The distance we must bridge to gain greater peace of mind remains the same no matter what externals we buy or experience. No apps or GPS will give us peace of mind; only self-awareness will.
Discontent takes the forms of complaints, cravings, and hurts. After a while, the thoughts in our head and social interactions feel like quicksand pulling us down. We have chosen unconsciousness over Consciousness. As long as we hold on to the idea that we can solve internal conflicts by losing weight or having friends more interesting, we remain stuck in a reactive loop of negativity. The kindling that keeps discontent burning is our thoughts. Thoughts and stories that create regret and anxiety feed our unhappiness. You can’t take advanced chemistry before introduction to chemistry. Knowing and believing we are responsible for our sadness, we move on to explore the sources of discontent.
Evidence demonstrating the impact of emotions on our body and life enjoyment continues to grow. Our thoughts determine our feelings. Some feelings are lovely and release hormones that make us feel wonderful, while others are unhealthy and make us sick.
I had a grand-dog, Doc, a golden lab. Sometimes he’d take me for a walk. He pulled me in the directions of birds, streams, fire hydrants and rabbits. Knowing this circus could end disastrously, dislocated shoulder or strained wrist, I’d hand the leash over to my son-in-law, Quay, then watch the two of them walk in lockstep. Training your dog, like training your mind, takes time and discipline.
When our emotions pull us every which way, we surrender the control of our contentment to unconsciousness. If we cannot regulate our emotions, we cannot enjoy a happy life. Our brain’s regulation network (emotions, attention, and empathy) should be our top billing. Quay’s handling of Doc demonstrated how, with the proper training, Doc’s brain could be trained not to respond to external promises of short-lived happiness. Expecting to reach enlightenment may not be realistic for most of us, but working towards better handling of our emotions moves us in the direction of contentment.
Remember a time sitting on a bench in a state of well-being. This is the life, you tell yourself. Then mosquitoes arrive, a takeover of your peace. Life is full of little landmines. Maybe you get irritated by a partner’s habit of leaving crumbs on the kitchen counter or neglecting to rinse the kitchen rag after using it. Your children’s behavior disappoints you. Your emotional temperature rises and you “speak your mind,” raising the emotional fever higher yet. Later you tell yourself that next time you will handle it differently, rationally and calmly. Then one day, the crumbs on the counter are too much. You have had enough. Your emotions pull you in the wrong direction, you can no longer see the shoreline of the island of contentment. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux calls this “the hostile takeover of consciousness by emotions.” The easier your boat is rocked, the unhappier you are, and the more miserable others feel around you.
Getting triggered by emotions generated by fear or anxiety takes less than a second. Knowing our triggers is a starting point. The same applies to negative thoughts. Learning our triggers prepares us to engage our rational thinking before our emotions are hijacked. Operating from a positive state inoculates us from negative influences, external or internal. With practice, it gets easier.