Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Evolution of Spiritual Bliss

Spiritual practice can provide a deep, abiding joy and peace.  I call this phenomenon “joy for free.”  That such joy comes of spiritual practice has been testified to through the ages.  I thought for a long time how “joy for free” can be made to jibe with Darwinian evolution.  Recently I had an insight into this that might provide a plausible explanation.

There is strong evidence that mental states are the result of brain states and that emotional states have to do with the transmission of certain chemicals through the brain’s synapses.  People who have imbalances of these chemicals can suffer serious depression which can lead to suicide.  A biologist/philosopher I met once called the nexus of these chemicals and our genetic disposition to emphasize the positive and filter out the negative in life the “Pollyanna effect” (not to be confused with the “Pollyanna Principle”).  He believes that without this, humans would have gone extinct long ago, because we would have found life intolerable.

Whether the Pollyanna Effect is correct or not, it seems that making life worth living is one of the things that evolution would have had to accomplish, at least for creatures with more complex behavior.  It also seems rather ridiculous to state that “life is intrinsically worth living.”  If life seems intrinsically worth living, it must be because evolution has made it seem through some mechanism.  So to put it briefly, to get to “joy for free” is to get to the very mechanism of evolution’s way of making life seem worth living – to seem valuable and worth caring about. 

Evolution, however, also presents a whole other range of dynamics – most importantly the need to survive and reproduce.   To motivate us towards these ends, evolution has to hide “joy for free” and instead make joy or happiness a reward for taking steps to survival and reproduction.  As with most species some form of power is a major asset to survival and access to mates.   Power is struggle and struggle (often brutish and deadly) is the way of most animal life and most human life.   Civilization has given humans brief respites from that struggle, but it has also accelerated the pace and deadliness of that struggle.

So, while joy for free is a possibility of biology, from an evolutionary perspective it is a dead end.  If there were ever societies that discovered how to access joy for free and given over to that activity, they were probably exterminated by societies given to power, or disappeared because they were not interested in reproduction.  While it has been a dead end for societies as a whole, it remains a possibility for individuals within those societies.  But access to joy for free is not easy.  Evolution has made sure of it.  

But how can a person obtain joy for free?  One has to fool biology, and biology is not easily fooled.   The yogi’s samadhi, the Buddhist’s nirvana, the Zen Buddhist’s satori are all forms of joy for free.  Each uses dhyana (meditation) toward this end.  The mature practice of dhyana involves a great deal of observation of how our inner being works – how the mind creates a self.  What the meditator observes is there is an on-going process of motivations – little (or sometimes big) energies that seek to move us.  Motivations directing us toward food and sex are very easy to observe; motivations toward status and power are more complex. 
Seeing how the pattern of the self originates in these basic motivations, one also learns the power of saying no to these motivations.  In ordinary life, we often move unconsciously or semi-consciously to the motivations, i.e. the desire for food hits and we get up and look for something to eat.   Through meditation, we can develop a kind of space between the motivation and our response to it.  In this space we can make a much more conscious choice about how we will, or will not, respond to the motivation. 

Meditation is so hard for many people to learn, because the body keeps trying to motivate us toward other, more biologically focused activity.   The first great lesson of meditation is precisely seeing how much energy our body and brain direct at keeping us from inner focus.  But with dedicated practice and desire to cease being a puppet to all these bodily motivations, we can develop that space.  To live from that space, to be centered in that space, is to be free from the compulsory effect of motivation.  And, freed from compulsion, being in that space is itself experienced as a deep peace and joy – joy for free.

Evolution is a wonderfully creative force – it has created the biosphere, and working through humans its motivations have propelled us toward culture, civilization, and the modern technological world.  But the great modern technological world has certainly not eased our hungers, indeed, it has accelerated them.  Our economies are based on our hungers, and there is a sort of conspiracy, backed by an army of hundreds of thousands of marketing and advertising personnel, to keep us hungry, to keep us discontent.

Joy for free is the worst thing our economy can imagine.  That a person can find the deepest and most enduring satisfaction and contentment merely by spiritual practice is certainly not the kind of thing that furthers its ends.  Yet as our hungers, lusts and struggles for power continue to eat deeper into an earth of limited resources, it is just the thing our ecology needs.  From the scientific side, we have learned to fool evolution through the conscious manipulation of genetics.  But genetics is but another servant of the marketplace, and poses its own dangers to the world.  Joy for free is a wonderful alternative; if only access to it could be made more available.

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