"Human nature is frequently thought to be concerned with the ‘red in tooth and claw’ aspects of behaviour such as sex, violence and food. ...there is good reason to think that our moral sensibility might be part of our biological endowment too as it plays a crucial role in enabling us to co-exist by making reciprocal altruism possible. It seems that morality is part and parcel of human nature rather than being something that merely enables us to rise above it." - Lance Workman and Will Reader, Evolutionary Psychology - An Introduction (2004, Cambridge University Press), p169.
One method of looking into our human nature is to consider our biological makeup. A popular understanding of what we are as living organisms, is one which frames our bodies as 'vehicles' for self-interested DNA. Richard Dawkins, now emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976, and put this idea across very vividly. Evolutionary Psychology - An Introduction (2004, Cambridge University Press) briefly explains Dawkins' thesis in the following way, p53:
"...The Selfish Gene (1976)... made an original contribution to evolutionary theory. Whereas previous works had suggested that we should be focusing on genes if we want to explain behaviour and physical traits, Dawkins explicitly proposed that the unit of selection is the gene itself. In order to explain his thesis he introduced a number of new terms into the debate, in particular the replicator and the vehicle. Replicators are any entities which are able to make copies of themselves and vehicles are the entities which, on a geological time scale, briefly carry the replicators. In the context of life on earth we can think of replicators as genes and vehicles as organisms, including ourselves."As we are all aware, instincts for aggression, fleeing, and sexual behaviour are built into our being - no doubt to aid the survival and replication of our DNA - even in the most unfortunate of situations. Evolutionary Psychology says of this, p299:
"Not responding to a life-threatening situation might have had dire consequences for our ancestors. [...] If there is one core emotion that has clear survival implications it must be fear. People who have no fear do not make for good ancestors. [...] Panic and agoraphobia, for example, may be seen as adaptations which prepare the body, both physiologically and psychologically, for attack. Blood circulation is re-routed to the muscles, and the mind becomes highly focused on finding escape routes. A number of evolutionists have argued that ‘negative’ emotions such as fear and anger generally serve to narrow the focus of attention and increase vigilance (see Fredrickson, 1998). Anyone who has ever felt either intense fear or complete rage will be aware that, once we are attending to the object of such negative emotions, we are not easily distracted from them. [...] Whereas fear is manifested by the urge to retreat, anger is clearly related to the urge to attack and injure. In either case the tendency to take action is quite specific."However, in amongst all this 'animalistic' behaviour, what often seems to be unassumed is that we may be also primed for moral behaviour. Evolutionary Psychology has the following to say, p165:
"...human nature evolved to facilitate the propagation of the genes and that, in most cases, is best served by aiding the survival and reproduction of the individual that serves as a vehicle for these genes, or their close relatives. This being the case it seems, on the face of it, to be somewhat paradoxical to suggest that natural selection might have endowed us with a moral sense. What possible advantage could it have for the individual and his or her genes to behave in a moral way towards non-kin? Surely such a behaviour could only be understood by invoking group selection: that the behaviours are of benefit to the species as a whole. In fact there is no paradox, it seems that a moral sense has some clear advantages to the individual... [...] Crucial to this view is that something is only immoral to the extent that a human being suffers (or might potentially suffer) as the consequence of some deliberate action by another."The idea of an instictive moral sense revolves around the cooperative advantages humans can tap into when operating as groups engaging in what evolutionary biologists call 'reciprocal altruism'. Here is Evolutionary Psychology on this, p195:
"Robert Trivers called beneficial acts that are later repaid by the beneficiary ‘reciprocal altruism’. [...] ...the evolution of reciprocal altruism in an animal society relies on a number of prerequisites:A case study of an existing ethnic group operating in a way considered incredibly ancient gives an example of how such an ancient survival strategy, very possibly operating during times when our modern human DNA was being more heavily affected, would have involved social sensitivities and clear moral codes, in Evolutionary Psychology, p199:
[...] Most animal behaviourists today would agree that reciprocal altruism does exist in the animal kingdom. However ... outside of Homo sapiens it is quite a rare occurrence. [...] Trivers (1985) considers that reciprocal altruism is likely to have played an important role in hominid evolution. He bases this conclusion on a number of arguments. First, all existent societies fulfil the three prerequisites laid out above, second, humans throughout the world have been observed to give aid to friends in a reciprocated manner and third, the emotional system that we have developed underlies such acts"
- The cost of the altruistic act to the recipient should be lower than the benefit to the actor.
- Animals should be capable of recognising each other in order both to reciprocate and to detect cheats (non-reciprocators).
- Animals should have a reasonably long life span in order that they may repeatedly encounter specific individuals and thereby allow for incidents of reciprocation to occur.
"Along with the Inuit (Eskimo) and the Aboriginals of Australia, the !Kung San [of Africa] are one of few hunter-gatherer societies that has retained a lifestyle that was common to all peoples prior to the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. [...] !Kung men vary quite considerably in their hunting prowess, but all meat killed is shared. The band will frequently produce four or five two-man teams which hunt simultaneously, but only one of these needs to be successful in a big game hunt to provide meat for the entire band. When a pair of hunters kills, say a wildebeest, each hunter will divide his share among his relatives who, in turn, share with their next of kin. Given that band members are all either blood relatives or related through marriage, in this way everybody receives some meat. This habit of sharing is considered to be of great social significance. A lapse of such generosity is considered a grave social sin and individuals who fail to comply lose status and prestige. Even acting in a boastful way about kills is considered a social taboo."In order for such behaviour to have existed tens of thousands of years ago, it seems plausible to expect there to be some genetic leaning towards morality as stated in Evolutionary Psychology, p166:
"Morality might... be a system that protects the individual’s sense of fairness, hierarchy and purity and enables us to thrive within our groups and engage in reciprocal altruism. This research is still very much in its early stages, but if it is correct it shows how morality is rather more than a rational cognitive process and is intimately related to emotional responses to particular transgressions."However, how could instincts for morality, promiscuity, and aggression all have existed within the human genome at once? It seems this would be a recipe for disaster, and yet Evolutionary Psychology has the following to say, p169:
"If morals are so useful (and we must assume that they are) why didn’t natural selection just wire in strong moral sentiments? [...] ...perhaps the optimal moral strategy is contingent upon the particular historical, cultural and social context in which the individual finds him or herself. ...when the optimal strategy is contingent, hard wiring makes little sense. If, for instance, you are born with a very strong moral sentiment, you might find yourself outcompeted by conspecifics who are prepared to cheat, steal and lie. On the other hand, if you were to be born with few moral sentiments, you might be ostracised by a community of high-moralists. In the same way that it might pay to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach to reproductive strategy, the same might apply to morality."And so it seems we are left in our present situation of having to use skill in order to 'manage' our evolutionary psychology - by understanding the mechanisms underlying the triggering of our more immoral insticts, so that we may remain civilised. This is where sensitivity to physical and mental tensions comes in.
It is worth noting that there are natural tensions within the human body - our cells and tendons have a turgidity or springiness which are essential to our health. In yoga, Tai Chi, and various other martial arts, this natural tension is felt and channelled in various ways in order to achieve holistic movement and awareness.
Unhealthy tension - that which stretches our tolerance to the point of stress - if not actively released, can cause physical impairments, psychological imbalances, and can even trigger instincts for violence and abandonment. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, in his book The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), points to this antagonistic tensive role between mind and body thus, p26-27:
"When we're unhappy, the effect of that mood on our body can bias the way we evaluate and interpret things around us without our being even the slightest bit aware that this is happening. [...] It's not just that patterns of negative thinking can affect our moods and our bodies. Feedback loops in the other direction, from the body to the mind, also play a critical role in the persistent return and deepening of unhappiness and dissatisfaction."
Such feedback cycles are the triggers for more immoral behaviours since tension in the body can cause tension in the mind, and this tension in the mind can further cause tension in the body - an example is when one feels intimidated by another person, and then a negative self-judgement is made about one's fearful reaction, causing one to tense up even more, and if the person remains present then the tension builds to the point that the fight or flight response may kick in, increasing the risk of the individual acting aggressively or irresponsibly.
The key to interrupting such build-up of tension has been to skillfully dissolve the building tension by habitually amplifying the moral instinct over the immoral one. Practicing charity, as is found within many religions, is one way of amplifying the moral instinct. Such charity cannot help when immoral instincts do inevitably begin to become fired up, however. In addition to this, the religious emphasis on fearing a God's judgement, or an unfavourable rebirth, presents fear as a healthy part of one's life even though it can easily trigger insticts for violence and neglect.
One way of over-riding the immoral instincts is by first noticing the onset of tension, and then harnessing the relaxing qualities of the breath to allow the mind and body to soften when the tension feedback cycle has been noticed to be intensifying. This practice has historically generated some very impressive results - for example, as outlined in the Shambhala Sun online article; The Lama in the Lab: Neuroscience and Meditation, outlining scientific obervations made when testing the startle reflex of a Tibetan Buddhist meditation expert called Lama Oser:
"A classic study in the 1940’s showed that it's impossible to prevent the startle reflex, despite the most intense, purposeful efforts to suppress the muscle spasms. No one Ekman and Robert Levenson had ever tested could do it. Earlier researchers found that even police marksmen, who fire guns routinely, are unable to keep themselves from startling. But Oser did. Ekman explains, "When Oser tries to suppress the startle, it almost disappears. We've never found anyone who can do that. Nor have any other researchers.” Oser practiced two types of meditation while having the startle tested: one-pointed concentration and the open state. As Oser experienced it, the biggest effect was from the open state: "When I went into the open state, the explosive sound seemed to me softer, as if I was distanced from the sensations, hearing the sound from afar." Ekman reported that although Oser's physiology showed some slight changes, not a muscle of his face moved, which Oser related to his mind not being shaken by the bang."It seems Lama Oser's moral instinct had been amplified in accompaniment with the practice of noticing and allowing tension to dissolve, to the extent that he habitually regarded tensing up (and possibly panicking) in reaction to sudden loud sounds as without any value. Approaching other situations which can trigger our potentially immoral instincts with the same mindful practice promises us similar results. The key is to accept the presence of the immoral instincts because if one reacts to them with fear then one is potentially indulging the fight or flight response and drawing violent or irresponsible behaviours associated with anger and desire ever closer.
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book, Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (2001), that we can approach the psychological and physical tension of anger mindfully as if it were a baby that needs the soothing compassionate embrace of a mother, p27-28:
"Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying. The baby needs his mother to embrace him. You are the mother for your baby, your anger. The moment you begin to practice breathing mindfully in and out, you have the energy of a mother, to cradle and embrace the baby. Just embracing your anger, just breathing in and breathing out, that is good enough. The baby will feel relief right away."And, p32:
"You have to be like a mother listening for the cries of her baby. If a mother is working in the kitchen and hears her baby crying, she puts down whatever she is doing, and goes to comfort her baby. She may be making a very good soup; the soup is important, but it’s much less important than the suffering of her baby. She has to put down the soup, and go the baby’s room. Her appearance in the room is like sunshine because the mother is full of warmth, concern, and tenderness. The first thing she does is pick up the baby and embrace him tenderly. When the mother embraces her baby, her energy penetrates him and soothes him. This is exactly what you have to learn to do when anger begins to surface. You have to abandon everything that you are doing, because your most important task is to go back to yourself and take care of your baby, your anger. Nothing is more urgent than taking good care of your baby."And lastly, p166:
"When anger comes up in us, we should begin to practice mindful breathing right away: “Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.”We behave exactly like a mother: “Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child.”This is the practice of compassion."This compassionate comforting of our inner angst-ridden nervous system is supported by American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck in her book Everyday Zen (1997), when she speaks of practicing being 'OK' with whatever comes up in our awareness, like a caring mother saying "It's OK" to her fearful child, p117:
"When something’s OK with us we accept everything we are with it; we accept our protest, our struggle, our confusion, the fact that we’re not getting anywhere according to our view of things. And we are willing for all those things to continue: the struggle, the pain, the confusion. In a way that is the training of sesshin [prolonged seated mindfulness meditation]. As we sit through it an understanding slowly increases: “Yes, I’m going through this and I don’t like it—wish I could run out—and somehow, it’s OK.” That increases."In this way, by accepting our more immoral instincts as part of our DNA's survival and replication mechanism, we can avoid the feedback cycles of tension that trigger the reflexive fight or flight system, and remain in control. Without the awareness of tension build-up and the utilising of the slowing breath to dissolve that tension, however, there is little hope of maintaining civilised behaviour when intense situations arise.