Great Ideas: The Power of Perspective

Here’s a recent editorial cartoon by J. C. Duffy, about people’s state of mind as the Presidential election winds down. Takes the form of a pie chart. 13% of the pie represents: “Thank God it’s almost over.” 14% represents: “I thought it would never end.” 16%: “If I hear ‘Joe the Plumber’ one more time, I’ll vomit.” 23%: “Hey! Swing States! Swing This!” 22%: “Why is Keith Olbermann yelling at me?” And finally, 12%: “Can I come out of the basement yet?”

Things have gotten this ugly, two days before November 4th. Yet another editorial cartoon – this one by Mick Stevens—portrays a couple behind their living room couch, heads popping up as if it were some kind of bunker during wartime, pictures on the wall all askew, coffee table turned over, lamp broken, puffs of flak and smoke, general chaos and disarray, and the husband says to his wife, “Now, that was an attack ad!”

Things have gotten this ugly. So it’s an ideal time to step back and get some perspective. Be like Black Elk from our responsive reading a moment ago—find ourselves standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round beneath us: the whole hoop of the world. A holy vision of hoops within hoops, diversity within unity, and at the center: one mighty flowering tree sheltering all the children, all the Republicans, all the Democrats, children of the same parents, all of us. An amazing perspective, reminding us that whoever the next President turns out to be, the United States remains first and foremost “of the people, by the people, for the people.” The vote we’ve cast already or will cast on Tuesday for our preferred presidential candidate is one of the most important votes we may cast in our lifetimes—and then there is the even more important kind of vote we must cast and keep on casting, which is our vote for each other, our vote of belief in each other, our vote of confidence that, whatever our differences, we can find common ground and we can work together. Perhaps in these last days before the election, we will indulge our partisan emotions somewhat; but after that: we need to come together, and we need to make this country work again. That’s what we need to do.

The power of perspective. Our topic this morning. Taking a closer look at ways we might tap into this power, deal more effectively with life’s difficult issues, like presidential elections and much, much more.

Beginning with a quote from Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko. ”I will tell you something about stories,” she says. “They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.” This is what she says, and it is in this spirit that we turn to our story from earlier and allow it to lead us forward. An old woman takes her desire to know the difference between heaven and hell to a group of monks, and they first show her a vision of hell, a dining hall filled with abundant food, but people are starving because they insist on trying to feed themselves with spoons that won’t go along with the plan, won’t allow for such self-centeredness. Then the monks take the old woman to heaven- again, a place of abundance, but this time the abundance is fully realized; people feed each other, and for something like this, the spoons DO work. This is the story, and it raises several questions. How is it that people get stuck in hell, when a shift of mind could take them all the way to heaven? As for this “shift of mind” – what’s involved with that? How to make such shifts lasting in our lives, and not just temporary?

Questions to consider, beginning with the one about people getting stuck in hell. Religions for thousands of years have tried to articulate the exact causes of this, and now contemporary science complements and enriches their efforts with a theory called “negativity bias.” Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, explains. He reminds us that there is far more to the human spirit than the conscious, reasoning part of the mind. There is also the unconscious part, with its own profound intelligence, far more ancient, far more powerful, centered in instinct and emotion and intuition. And this part is biased towards the negative. Evolution has “wired it to find and react to threats, violations, and setbacks.” “It makes sense,” Jonathan Haidt says. “If you were designing the mind of a fish, would you have it respond as strongly to opportunities as to threats? No way. The cost of missing a cue that signals food is low; odds are that there are other fish in the sea, and one mistake won’t lead to starvation. The cost of missing the sign of a nearby predator, however, can be catastrophic. Game over, end of the line for those genes.” The negativity bias makes sense. And so, we see it playing out in all sorts of ways. One critical or destructive act in a close relationship, requiring at least five good or constructive acts to be balanced out. The pain of losing a certain amount of money being far more than the pleasure of winning the exact same amount. People estimating that it would take twenty-five acts of life-saving heroism for a murderer to redeem himself in the eyes of the world. In America, the formal existence of a Department of War, but not a corresponding Department of Peace. People in our story from today, out for themselves, better safe than sorry. Over and over again, says Jonathan Haidt, psychologists see this negativity bias at play in people’s lives.

And when he talks about this pattern being “wired” in us, he means it literally. Neuroscientists tell us that the human nervous system is comprised of two opposing dynamics: an approach dynamic, and a withdrawal dynamic. One says, “come closer,” and the other says “stay away.” One eases the body with good feelings, and the other orders it to red alert, to fight-or-flight. And the kicker is this: neural pathways that convey threats are far quicker than the ones that convey positive things. Bad news runs faster than good. This is the literal imprint of the negativity bias within us. It goes down THIS deep. Our brains have an in-build red alert system, but, says Jonathan Haidt, “there is no equivalent green alert system to notify you instantly of a delicious meal or a likely mate. Such appraisals can take a second or two,” as compared to the tenth of a second it can take for the brain to size up danger.

Negativity bias, written into the very structure of the human body. The predisposition to getting stuck in hell, right here. And there’s more. How negative emotion can overtake and overwhelm the rational mind. Make it an instrument of negativity, transform it into an organ of rationalization. “Thoughts can cause emotions,” says Jonathan Haidt, “but emotions can also cause thoughts, primarily by raising mental filters that bias subsequent information processing. A flash of fear makes you extra vigilant for additional threats; you look at the world through a filter that interprets ambiguous events as possible dangers. A flash of anger toward someone raises a filter through which you see everything the offending person says or does as a further insult or transgression. Feelings of sadness blind you to all pleasures and opportunities.” That’s what Jonathan Haidt says, and once again, politics comes to mind. Some Republicans who think that if Obama is elected, then “the country they grew up in will be no more.” A “liberal tsunami” will rise up and crush “the vision of the Founding Fathers.” Slippery-slope rhetoric, and it is just as panicky with some Democrats, as they try to imagine a McCain presidency. A recent mock editorial by the Manitoba Herald pokes fun at this. “The flood of American liberals sneaking across the border into Canada has intensified in the past week, sparking calls for increased patrols to stop the illegal immigration. The possibility of a McCain/Palin election is prompting the exodus among left-leaning citizens who fear they’ll soon be required to hunt, pray, and agree with Bill O’Reilly.”

It’s negativity bias on overdrive. The rational mind overwhelmed by fear, seeing and interpreting everything through a distorting filter of fear. It’s hell.

But even though the tendency to this is inscribed in our brains, this does not mean that we are fundamentally unfree. It does not mean that clean political campaigns will always and forever fail. It does not mean that we are fated to make the hellish scene in the story from earlier come true, where abundance is spread before us, but we are starving because we do not trust one another, we take each other to be some kind of threat, we insist on trying to feed ourselves with those three foot long spoons and won’t give up no matter what.

Which takes us to our second question for today: how to shift our minds, from hellishness to heaven. How to make the shift enduring. And I am profoundly intrigued by current research around a phenomenon known as “neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to morph in response to experience. Reorganizing circuits to compensate for brain injuries. Decreasing activity in one place and increasing in another, in response to mental disciplines. It’s a phenomenon that has long fascinated a religious leader like the Dalai Lama, who, since the 1990s, has been lending monks and lamas to neuroscientists for studies on how meditation actually tames the negativity bias inscribed in our brains.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describes this: “How Thinking Can Change the Brain,” by Sharon Begley. Eight Buddhist monks who had practiced meditation for at least 10,000 hours and ten volunteers who had had just a crash course in meditation were a part of an experiment conducted by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “He and his colleagues wired them up like latter-day Medusas, a tangle of wires snaking from their scalps to the electroencephalograph that would record their brain waves.” Each was asked to meditate and focus on compassion and loving kindness toward all beings, and as the volunteers began meditating, one kind of brain wave grew stronger than usual: gamma waves, which correlate to moments of holistic insight, as when you and I are able to put all the various pieces of a thing together and see it in its entirety. The volunteer meditators “showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal,” said Richard Davidson; but as for the Buddhist monks, when it was their turn to be tested? The gamma signal began rising, and rising, and rising, off the charts. In fact, even between meditation times, the gamma signals the monks gave off never died down. They stayed permanently strong. Professor Davidson then used MRI imaging to discover differences between the brains of the volunteers and the monks, and what he discovered was that the monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. They also had stronger connections from the frontal regions to the emotion regions, which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions. In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. In short: mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy. Meditation on a regular basis can change our brains in an enduring way. Meditation can tame the negativity bias.

In fact, just generally, what shapes our brains is what we give out attention to. Not any old idea or fear that floats into our field of awareness, but what we repeatedly choose to focus on, nurture, hold on to, harbor. The Wall Street Journal article illustrates this by citing a 1993 experiment on monkeys. Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, rigged up a device that tapped monkeys’ fingers 100 minutes a day every day. They also placed headphones over the monkeys’ ears, which transmitted certain sounds. Now, some of the monkeys were taught this: to ignore the sounds and pay attention to the tapping on their fingers. Whenever the tapping changed pace, if they told the scientists, they would be rewarded with a sip of juice. As for the other group of monkeys: they were taught the reverse: to ignore their fingers and pay attention to the sounds in their ears. Whenever there was a change in the sound, if they told the scientists, they’d get a sip of juice. Six weeks later, the scientists compared the monkeys’ brains, and the results reflected not the bare reality of what happened, but what the monkeys paid attention to. Usually, when a spot on the skin receives unusual amounts of stimulation, the brain region that processes touch expands. But scientists only found this in the monkeys who actually paid attention to the tapping on their fingers. Again, when our ears receive an unusual amount of stimulation, the brain region that processes hearing expands. But this was found only in the monkeys who paid attention to the sounds. The lesson in all of this? How attention—even though “it seems like one of those ephemeral things that comes and goes in the mind but has no physical presence—can, when focused, alter the layout of the brain as powerfully as a chisel can carve stone.”

It’s neuroplasticity. And this is but the scientific correlative to what spiritual traditions have been teaching for thousands of years about the power of perspective, when perspective is understood as a spiritually disciplined way of seeing and being in the world. I’m not talking about spirituality that’s all talk and no action. I’m not talking about fleeting feel-good moments. I’m not talking about retail therapy. What’s going to move us from hell into heaven is, as the tradition of Buddhism puts it, Right Effort. There must be Right Effort. Slow and steady wins the race. Focused attention. You get out of your chosen spiritual path only as much as you put in. It’s not enough to just call ourselves Unitarian Universalists—we have to BE Unitarian Universalism, DO Unitarian Universalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “A person will worship something—have no doubt about that. We may think that our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts—but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, be are becoming.”

What is dominating your imagination and your thoughts these days? What are you worshipping and therefore becoming?

Stories are all we have to fight off illness and death—and if there is one lesson to be learned from our story for today, it is that the path from hell to heaven revolves around what we choose to do with the crazy three foot long spoons. The spoons that just don’t go along with a me-first approach to life; the spoons that work only when we use them to feed each other. And did you notice how they were there in both hell and heaven? As if to say that they represent a constant in every dimension of our existence, an invariant, inescapable law of life. “The more we share, the more we have.” “The best way to find ourselves is to lose ourselves in the service of others.” “The three things we most crave in life—happiness, freedom, and peace of mind—are always attained by giving them to someone else.” This is the law of life that the three foot long spoons represent.

It’ll be either Obama or McCain, McCain or Obama. The economy will recover sooner, or it’ll recover later. Each possibility will open up a different world. But my question to you is, what are you gonna do with your crazy three foot long spoons? Everything depends on THAT. Every time we fear we do not have enough for ourselves, and runaway thoughts start to take over, IF we can calmly bring ourselves back to the mantra that “for what is most important in life, there is always enough, more than enough for all,” AND THEN lift the spoon to another person’s lips—we create heaven. Every time fear thoughts come in, fear thoughts saying that if I feed the other person first, if I feed something else in my life, there’s not going to be enough for me—IF we regularly practice prayer or meditation and learn how to disattach from such thoughts, THEN we can learn how to stay quiet in our hearts, and clear in our minds. We create heaven. Our brains may possess a negativity bias, but the power of perspective is a power to shape even our brains, turn on the compassion circuits, turn on the empathy circuits. Create heaven. More heaven, more and more. Heaven is not a place in the hereafter—it’s a gift we can give each other, right here, right now.