“The Mind Is Mainly Drawn to the Future”

“The mind is mainly drawn to the future.” So write Martin Seligman and John Tierney in “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment” in the New York Times on May 21, 2017. The article is based on the book Homo Prospectus of which Seligman is an author.

Well, is this a new idea about the mind? We know that when we are feeling anxious or overloaded, our mind is scrambling to avoid a danger or find a way out. I know that even in calm hours, my head streams possible conversations in which I come out ahead, drafts blog posts, and edits memories so they’ll look a little better the next time I replay them.

In the Buddhist tradition, in contrast, such future-fussing is mainly about cultivating the illusion of the self. We tangle ourselves up in the false realities of ego, time, words. Better to explore the moment, leave the worries aside. Meditation cultivates a sharper awareness of the present and of our shining mind. The future may seem to be out there, but it is the mindful moment that is real.

mind future (ideamappingsuccess.com)

(ideamappingsuccess.com)

Seligman and Tierney don’t criticize such Buddhist values directly, though the focus on the future-oriented brain contrasts sharply with them. Instead, they take exception to the emphasis in psychology on studying the brain in terms mostly of the past (memory, repetitive learning) and the present (perception). They assert that “Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain….” We plan for tomorrow, we rehearse conversations, “We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities.” “Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead.” And “Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected,” because what is unexpected might be a clue to what happens next.

This idea that we often understate the brain’s complex preparations for our future makes sense to me. No matter what other qualities of our mind we cherish, the brain’s critical function of scanning for danger and for biological necessities proceeds 24/7. As Darwin spelled it out,  we, like all organisms, are first about reproducing and surviving, and those are certainly future-oriented activities.

Thinking about the perpetually restless brain reminds me of taking our family’s young retriever Ginger for walks, years ago. My wife and I envisioned strolling around the neighborhood with Ginger calmly strolling with us. But what we got instead for the first year or three was a beast straining nonstop to charge ahead and away and pulling our arms practically out of the sockets. Eventually training and maturity sunk in a little and she walked more or less at our pace. But walking itself is a going into the future and Ginger was, like our ancient mind, never far from leaping into it.

 

The Clergy Letter Project

The Clergy Letter Project is a set of letters signed by over 13,000 American clergy supporting the compatibility between science and their own creeds and urging the teaching of evolution in public schools. The Project consists today of four brief, slightly different letters signed by Christian, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, and Buddhist clergy. It began in 2004 as a response by biologist Michael Zimmerman to anti-evolution policies in a Wisconsin school district. They are a savy, constructive move.

(theclergyletterproject.org)

(theclergyletterproject.org)

Most or all of the letters affirm that the effort to ban the teaching of evolution or to insert the teaching of creationism violates the separation of church and state. Three of the four letters assert, as stated in the Christian one, that religion and science can “comfortably coexist” but that “science [should] remain science and that religion remain religion.” They point to differences of discourse: the purpose of scientific truth is to convey scientific information while the purpose of religious truth is “to transform hearts.”

Standing apart from this emphasis on differences is the Buddhist letter. It comments not on the separation between the two fields but instead and surprisingly on two ways in which evolutionary concepts are integrated within the rationality of the faith. It points out that all things are interconnected with one another as they develop and that the Buddha himself as well as his incarnations are metaphors for the evolving nature of life.

I found this theme in the Buddhist letter refreshing. Here are religious spokespeople responding to a scientific concept not as a threat but as a clarification and an affirmation. What a contrast not only to the creationist debacle but also to the animosity between many atheistic followers of science and supporters of of organized religion. As the Buddhist letter suggests, close encounters between scientific information and spiritual inspiration need not be destructive in all cases.

In this blog, I try to use my experience of and general knowledge about living things as a resource for responding to my spiritual questions. It’s precisely the non-spiritual aspects of science—its literalness, exactitude, and curiosity—that I find to be spiritually stimulating. They give it authority and reveal some of the sides of nature that are invisible to me. I, like many, admire the Clergy Letter Project’s effort to emphasize the compatibility of science and religion and to reject the creationist intrusion in science education. But I also want to hold open a comfortable acceptance for people who want to bring scientific understanding to bear on their religious outlook.

Suffering

This blog looks at ways in which the history of living things may be relevant to people’s largest questions about life. One of these questions is how to cope with suffering. Modern secularism and traditional religions differ widely in what they have to say about suffering. I suggest that a broad view of the evolution of all living things offers a middle ground.

Modern creeds don’t say much about how to endure or make sense of suffering. American Humanism, with its focus on ethical values for better lives and the good of humanity, mentions “methods of dealing with life’s harsher realities” in its introduction to religious humanism. Naturalism, as presented at naturalism.org, focuses on the physical world and the rejection of supernaturalism without discussing suffering. Some secularists, however, look back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who recommended reducing one’s suffering by cultivating an attitude of robust tranquility, leading a stable life with good friends, and not relying on the gods. His advice still gets respect.

"Job" by Leon Bonnat, 1880. Misery with supplication but without explanation (hebrewbible.wordpress.com)

Job by Leon Bonnat, 1880. Misery with supplication but without explanation (hebrewbible.wordpress.com)

But most people who seek to understand their suffering look to religion. Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths place suffering at the center: life is suffering, the source of suffering is attachment, and detachment is achievable. For Hindus, suffering results from past errors but is also a motivation for spiritual progress. The Christian Bible’s many stories of suffering are epitomized in the lesson of Job, whose miseries and supplications lead only to the moral that God is too great to be understood and is not obligated to explain suffering to Job or anyone else. Good behavior and right belief, in other words, don’t guarantee that we won’t suffer, for suffering may be completely undeserved.

Is there a view of suffering that is more empathetic than “methods for dealing with harsh realities” and yet remains within the bounds of secular thinking? A view of suffering with some of the comforting grandeur of the religious vision but also with a foundation in science?

The history of life offers a path to explore. From this point of view, human suffering is only one instance of the adversity faced by all living things, including plants and animals. “Suffering” itself is an awareness; it requires consciousness. But the onslaughts to well-being that provoke such suffering—the diseases, injuries, competition, hostilities, and changing environment—plague every single thing that lives. Only humans and some animals suffer, but all of life struggles.

Would this view console someone who is battling with cancer or severe drought or domestic violence? Probably not. To find consolation in the midst of such miseries, we need connections to our own kind.

But when we try at calmer moments to understand suffering and bolster ourselves to withstand it, we can hold in mind that its roots are shared by all living things. My recent bout with heart disease and heart surgery did indeed widen my empathy for others’ difficulty and bring me closer to certain people. If our suffering can easily add to our empathy for other humans, imagine the connection we might also feel for the struggles of all life.

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother"

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother

(abetterarborist.com)

(abetterarborist.com)

While only the anxious woman might be said to feel suffering, both she and the diseased tree are struggling for existence.