Living in Layers – Part VII – Where’s our Humanity? Heart or Mind? And Other Centers

From the great disconnect of self, other, and environment, aggression and an unwillingness to understand “other” at all levels from self to global relations is increasing. Self-loathing, psychological and physical violence in schools, unwarranted aggression towards other nations and cultures, and crimes in the streets of our cities, towns, suburbs, and rural settings are becoming more and more prevalent. We are losing our hearts and minds. From personal to corporate and political agendas, we fail to consider our shared humanity. Difference as manifested in cultural and religious beliefs, in varying worldviews, and in personal styles and abilities serve as the bases for fear, avoidance, and bias. We are losing our connections to our own and others’ humanity at all levels.

Although there is an incredible diversity among individuals and cultures, all people share the same basic emotions and concerns, We care about life, fear death, desire companionship and love, and strive for survival. At the core of our beings, according to Shambhala Buddhism, we share some sense of “basic goodness” or fundamental sense of our shared humanity. Of course, there are some who have lost their connection to humanity. Some have become suicidal. Others abandon or kill their children, kill others, and have given up caring about themselves. Life in all its forms, from bacteria to mammals (there is no hierarchy implied in this range), is incredibly unique and awe-inspiring in the grand scheme of the universe. Yet, we continually lose sight of our extraordinary situation. When our political leaders brag about and celebrate the killing of others, no matter what the circumstances, I am left feeling perplexed, saddened, and frightened. How can our leaders publicly exhibit joy in the death and killing of selected individuals, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, express an abhorrence of killing in other situations? The politicians implementation of “hit list” of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda members, ISIS/ISIL, and Iraqis, along with the bringing to fruition of the death penalty for certain criminals, are actions to celebrate. At the same time, killing is considered to be the ultimate crime. I’m perplexed by this disparate binary of killing. I’m saddened that we trivialize death and view life and death so frivolously. And, I’m frightened that we are moving toward a life of greater violence, of greater disregard for our humanity. This total disregard for humanity certainly seems to be the characteristic of the U.S.’s present (2018) administration and Congress, as a whole. But, this disregard for humanity is not just characteristic of the U.S., it’s like a virus spreading throughout the world, which is often hidden by sweet words and superficial actions that appear to be humanitarian.

The layers of our identities are becoming increasingly hardened with less porosity. We are losing connections to our humanity, which is becoming deeply buried in solidified layers of meaningless rationalities and dark intentions. In schools, children and teachers are treated with little regard for their human needs. In my son’s middle school, a boy was caught getting drunk from his “water” bottle of alcohol. The principal banned all students from carrying water bottles. This was in Flagstaff, Arizona, at an altitude of 7,000 feet, where humidity tends to fluctuate around 15 percent. Drinking a lot of water is a necessity to keep from becoming dehydrated. Over the past years, everyone in my family has ended up in the emergency room for rehydration. With reckless disregard, the principal implements policies that put children at risk and, at the same time, has avoided dealing with the particular needs of the specific student and his obvious problem with alcohol.

The “letter of the law” at all levels of society is adhered to without considering the individual. Our jails are overflowing with people, many of whom could benefit from situations that could help them turn their lives around. Prisons, in general, do very little to rehabilitate inmates. Yet, we continue to create stricter laws and increase prison terms. In the Navajo Nation, when a person commits a crime within the jurisdiction of the Nation’s police force and judicial system, they assess the individual’s specific situation. Medicine men are brought into the process of helping the person reconnect with his life and culture. The humanity of the person becomes the focus of the process of helping to reconnect with a “life in beauty.” In other parts of our society, individuals have initiated similar humanitarian approaches. Years ago, in New Jersey, I recall that a judge sentenced certain individuals, who committed crimes of burglary, to a term of working for the victim. The idea was that not only did the criminal have a problem, but the victim had one, as well. The criminal burglarized a home with an objectified and disconnected notion of the victim. The victim, as a result, was contending with fear and an objectified and disconnected hatred of the perpetrator. In following the “letter of the law” approach, a binary that separates and solidifies the separation is created. By implementing a sentence that brings both parties together, they were forced into a situation of beginning to understand one another’s humanity, and a unifying binary was created. The last I heard was that the judge’s approach was successful in a vast majority of cases with no return to crime.

At “my” coffee shop, a homeless man came by occasionally and took a cup from the bin where patrons return their used cups and plates. He would walk in, put a quarter in the “refill” honor system can, and fill the cup, rather than paying the $1.82 for a medium coffee. The owner and employees knew the routine and said nothing. They felt that the man made the effort of paying something. The owner appreciated his humanity, just as he appreciated and connected to the humanity of his employees. We all experience such glimmers of humanity, as in the bumper sticker “perform random acts of kindness,” but as a society we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. What lies at the center of our connections and disconnections to humanity? Why do we choose to connect or disconnect?

In the phenomenal world, the metapattern notion of “centers” acts as the organizing and stimulating principle for activity, growth, development, and cognition. We build cities around rivers and inlets. Such geographic features are centers for the development of cities; and the cities become the centers for commerce, socialization, the arts, and other human activity. Within individuals, curiosity acts as the center for exploration, inquiry, and thought. From an anatomical perspective, the individual is comprised of multiple centers. The heart is the center of circulatory systems, as well as one of many centers of the whole. In the same way, the brain – itself composed of multiple centers – is the center of the nervous system as well as of the whole. Moving out from the individual biological form, cultures and societies are comprised of multiple centers. However, the notion of heart and mind, where mind may be considered to be more than just the brain, are fundamental centers of worldview. In Euro-Western societies, the mind tends to be center, where thinking, and rationality, where talk and writing are highly valued and serve as the basis for or fundamental mode of activity. From this perspective, emotions are seen as somewhat superfluous, problematic, or, at least, tangential to one’s primary activities. In many Hindu, Native American and other indigenous cultures, heart is the center for activity. The connections to others and to the earth are based upon connections of the heart. Feelings and emotions are the energizing factors. Within Buddhist cultures, the emphasis is on coordinating or joining heart and mind. Openness to others and compassion are activities of the heart, while intellect acts as the discriminating awareness that provides for skillful action in being open to and compassionate to others. From this perspective, all heart can be too wishy-washy or foolish, and all mind can be too aggressive. The balance is found by joining heart and mind. Hierarchies in human social structures tend to be mind-centered, where the centers of power and control occur at upper levels of the strata. Although holarchies can be mind-centered as well, they tend to be more heart-centered, in terms of valuing all participants and their particular concerns. In addition, holarchies hold the potential for propagating a coordination of heart and mind, for effective and socially sensitive activity.

Ego-centricity, ethno-centricity, national-centricity, and anthropocentricity (i.e., human-centered) tend to be mind-centered with a strong emotional character. Emotions, in such situations, may seem to contradict the notion of mind-centered versus heart-centered. However, our emotions are rarely experienced directly and purely. Immediately upon experiencing an emotion, we generate layers of storylines, rationalities, and justifications. The emotions themselves are deep connections to our humanity, but the thinking that ensues becomes claustrophobic and solidifying. From each of the centricities, with their mental and emotional rationales, we perpetuate our separation from others, from the living and physical world. Arising from a mind-center, we can rationalize and justify our actions. “I am angry at you, because….” “We’re going to bomb you, because….” Whatever, the situation, we can develop logical or, more frequently, logically fallacious justifications. And, fundamentally, such thinking leads to disconnects with humanity.

From a heart-centered or coordinated heart-mind-centered perspective, we may develop strong connections to ourselves, other individuals, and our cultures and ethnicity. However, such connections do not become solidified to the exclusion of others. Heart-centers recognize and feel our shared humanity, our shared suffering, and our shared joys. With the onslaught of thoughts that accompany emotions, we can stop putting much credence in the rationales, and even see the process as a shared human condition.

At this point nearing 2020, the United States is in extreme jeopardy from completely dysfunctional political institutions, from runaway corporate greed, and from the shared global threats arising from ecological collapse, global warming, dangerous population growth, massive immigration, and a shared sense of fear and desperation that only adds to the jeopardy. Countries and various groups of people are reacting emotionally and withdrawing into the tightest cocoon they can manage, while pushing away or attacking others. In times when all hell can break loose, the very thing we should not do is to attack one another. What all people must do is start connecting with one another and working together. Our only hope for survival, beyond a spattering of small groups, is to put aside differences and pull together. We must work together, pool our creativity, energy, and compassion to find ways of approaching the problems and to do so despite politicians and political and corporate agendas.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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