My New Guru           




Siddharta Guatama, the Buddha, felt that we are reborn moment to moment. He taught that it is up to us to embrace each moment, each rebirth, as it happens. As science has made us more aware of the workings of the human brain it appears that the Buddha, as with so many of his insights, was correct.

Let’s follow his guidance and grab the moment this morning, and look to each rebirth for insights into the world, into ourselves.


"Any experience can endure for about ten seconds in short-term memory, After that, the brain exhausts its capacity for the present tense, and it’s consciousness must begin anew, with a new stream." 

    - Johah Lehrer - author of Proust Was A Neuroscientist


“I FELT a cleavage in my mind
  As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
  But could not make them fit.
  
The thought behind I strove to join
  Unto the thought before,
But sequence raveled out of reach
Like balls upon a floor.”

Emily Dickinson


“The brain is our favorite bodily organ. It is the most complex object in the known Universe. So complex that science has only made the first tentative steps towards understanding it. 

One thing is clear though: you have three brains. There are three brains nested within your skull: the lizard brain, the dog brain, and the human brain. 

Brains have been evolving on this planet for a long time. Lizards got brains a couple of hundred million years ago. When lizard brains emerged several things appeared on the planet for the first time: lust, anger, and aggression. Lizard brains are small and simple. They control breathing, vision, bodily movement. They also allow fierce territorial fights, lusty bouts of mating, and displays of anger. 

About 100 million years ago, loyalty appeared on Earth. Mammals emerged. They have more complex brains than reptiles. Specifically, mammals have a large brain that grew on top of the lizard brain. Dogs have two brains. They have the lizard brain, which forms a bump at the top of the spinal cord. This brain controls breathing and basic functions just as in lizards. 

Mammals’ new layer of brain—called the limbic system—is more complex. It is more densely wired and allows for richer experience. Dogs experience love and loyalty, as anyone knows who has one. Dogs are as adept at positive emotional attachment as we, and sometimes clearer about it. 

Dogs’ limbic systems are anatomically distinct from their lizard brains. Evolution is conservative. It keeps old designs that work. The lizard brain is a beautiful design for performing basic bodily functions. Instead of starting from scratch when designing mammals, life kept the early hardwired structures and added a more complex layer to perform the subtler functions of mammalian lives. 
Poetry, art, language and reason appeared on Earth a few hundred thousand years ago when our ancestors evolved. All apes have a third brain. In us, it is huge. It is inside this human brain that mathematics and music, deception and politics, religion and racism live. It is the Machiavelli as well as the Mozart brain, the Eichman as well as the Einstein brain. 

This neo-cortex is functionally semi-independent from the lizard and dog brains. That is why our experience is so odd. Consider this: language lies in the human brain, but emotions lie within the separate dog and lizard brains. So the emotions are in a different world from language entirely. Not only that, reason too lives in the new human brain while emotions live in the older brains. The lizard and dog brains are running their emotion programs while the human brain is running its thinking programs. They don’t have too much to do with each other. 

The older brains cannot speak. They can only feel and act. This is where the self-contradictory nature of so much human behavior comes from. 
The lizard brain is moved to lust. The dog brain is moved to love and loyalty. The human brain to the idea of romance and a dream of ethics. 

We have more than one memory system, too. There are independent memory systems in the neo-cortex and the limbic system. The big human brain has the intellectual memory where we remember facts and phone numbers. The dog brain has an emotion-based memory. It is slower to learn but retains memories longer. In fact it never forgets your experiences. As we age the neo-cortical memory degrades and we have senior moments. This doesn’t happen to the limbic brain.

Can we better integrate our three brains? It turns out that meditation integrates the brains. It rewires and harmonizes them. It lets you see through the blandishments of consumerism and much other falsity. Harmonizing one's brain is a slow and patient project. Evolution has not had time to integrate our brains. Meditation is a way of choosing to help evolution reach its moulding hand inside our head. Three brains are swell, but three brains in harmony are bliss.”

    - James Thornton






I have a new guru. This is no small thing.

One doesn’t want to flit from one guru to another. People will talk.

Still, I have had numerous gurus over the years. I rarely forsake an old guru for a new one. I simply adjust my guru hierarchy. 

I keep pictures of my gurus on the wall in my basement. At the top of the hierarchy are Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, the two midwestern souls whose world views have informed mine most. Then their is Goethe, and Buckminster Fuller, Siddharta Gautama, Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, Vaclav Havel, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Lee Masters, Gandhi, and others. 

My gurus are all have something grand to offer the seeker, yet each is made of flesh, with the assets and debits inherent in mortality. I respond much better to the lessons of my imperfect brethren than to the lessons of the divine anthropomorphic creatures embraced by so many.

But as I said, I have a new guru. I am preparing a picture of him for my wall, though I am not sure yet what place he will hold in the hierarchy. Like any new guru, at the moment he has my earnest attention as I try grasp his lessons, but it’s much to early to rank him.

My new guru has insights into the greatest question of all, the question I have spent my life trying to understand.

This is the question: “Why do people do what they do?”

Well, to be more precise, he asks, “Why do mammals do what they do?”

His area of expertise is not specifically humans, but rather dogs, and one of his first lessons is that dogs and humans are both mammals, with behavioral patterns interconnected through countless generations of natural selection. To understand dog behavior one must understand human behavior, he teaches, and the two creatures have more in common than one might imagine.

You may be familiar with my guru but haven’t embraced his teachings as fervently as I have. His name is Cesar Milan, his business is helping psychologically damaged dogs, and he has a show on TV called the Dog Whisperer.

The first time I tuned in his show I was acutely skeptical, assuming it was a show for the countless people who looked at their dogs as their children, a  state I find distasteful.

Imagine my surprise when he scolded his clients for treating their dogs like children. His approach, I learned, was to feign studying the dog, but instead studied the dog owners and their interaction with the dog. His genius lie in modifying dog behavior by first modifying human behavior. 

His fundamental belief is that dogs, as mammals, are pack animals, the result of millions of years of evolution, of natural selection. As pack animals dog behavior is always dependent on their place in the pack, an organic structure with necessary roles. When you invite a dog into your home, the dog and you and any other creature who lives in the house is automatically part of a pack, whether you know it or not. 

If the dog owner does not establish the hierarchy in the household in their favor via what Cesar calls calm assertive behavior, the dog will dominate the household. This domination usually creates a neurotic environment within the house. Humans inevitably project their internal emotional state onto their dogs and In such conditions dog owners often end up treating the dog like a child and make matters much worse.

Cesar  teaches the dog owner how to express calm assertive energy and to stop sabotaging their efforts by treating the dog like it is capable of human reason. Once he gets them to break through the behavior patterns that defeat their efforts the success rate is phenomenal. 

I urge you to watch The Dog Whisperer. I have a degree in psychology, an advanced degree in Counseling, I’ve studied buddhism for 30 years, and I swear I learned as much about human and mammalian behavior in watching a few of Cesar’s shows as I did from many years of study. The man is a marvel.

On one show a dog owner was driven to despair by her inability to get through to her dog.

Cesar, aware of her exasperation, aware that she expected the dog to think like a human, pointed out that dogs always live in the moment. They are oblivious to expectations, since expectations are rooted in the future.

Dogs do not have the advanced neo-cortex that humans evolved, and can’t make the connections between past, present, and future on the scale that humans do. They operate within the strictures of the lizard and mammalian brains, not the neo-cortical brain. As such, they live in the moment, a state conducive to the fixed roles of the pack, but disconnected from the fluid time of reason.

The idea that dogs always live in the moment may seem obvious to the more enlightened among us, but hit me like a thunderbolt. It led to a cascade of connections in my simple little brain. In that moment I realized I had a new guru. Hail Cesar!

Aren’t we all fascinated by the demeanor of dogs? Somewhere in that mindset is the source of the remarkable kinship dogs and humans have. Humans, neurotic by nature, constantly bombarded by the white noise of their remarkable cerebrum, get such comfort out of a dog’s company. Cesar’s words made me realize why. Since dogs are always in the moment, they engage us completely. This is the attraction. They are the way we wish our human companions would be, the way humans indeed were before the evolutionary development of our anomalous cerebrum changed humans irrevocably from other of God’s creatures. Our cerebrum is a time travel machine, allowing us to dwell on the past, picking at past mistakes like a scab that won’t heal. It makes us worry about the future, the future we can’t control but can obsess over endlessly. To the dog the past is gone forever, the future doesn’t exist. All that exists for them is the moment at hand. Creatures that live in the moment are wonderful company.

In fact, living in the moment seems to be the holy grail of human endeavor.

Consider that virtually all religions teach that we must let go of the past, we musn’t dwell on the future, we should learn to live in the present.

It is the central theme of Buddhism, which literally means to “be awake”, to be in the present. All of the philosophy of Buddhism is based on letting go of desire, a state rooted in the past and the future. It occurs to me that Buddhism, and all orthodox religions as well, are based on returning to our pre-cerebral state, returning to our mammalian heritage and living in the moment. The major religions, with their implicit rejection of reason in favor of faith, could be said to favor the emotional limbic system over the rational cerebral cortex, giving dominance to the same brain structure that allows lower mammals to exist so contentedly in the moment.

Recently I was faced with a dramatic situation where I could not live in the moment, was haunted by the past, while another soul, faced with the same set of circumstances, was able to stay blessedly in the moment. It was an illustrative experience.

An old, dear friend had died. 

It was a tragic death of the first order. Such potential, such promise, so loved by his family and friends, Mike had died alone, ravaged by years of substance abuse.

I drove to my hometown for the wake, and as I walked up the steps of the funeral home, there in front of me was his high school sweetheart, the mother of his two children, his ex-wife Becky.

I had not seen her for many years, since she had remarried in the wake of their divorce, a divorce that was the inevitable result of his inability to break free of the shackles of alcohol addiction.

We embraced and embarked on some clumsy small talk. I had hoped I would see her at the wake to pick her brain and try to get some insight into what had gone so terribly wrong. I had expected her to be inconsolable, for I knew how much she had loved him, devoted her life to him. But rather than anguish, she exuded absolute peace and contentment.

Almost every person at the wake was shell-shocked, fighting back tears, remarking on the unlikeliness that things would have turned out this way. Mike was a small town farm boy, a star athlete, musician, a fitness nut, the class president, a state scholar. He was one of the only kids in our class to not drink in high school. He and I had been great friends at a time when our lives stretched in front of us with promise and excitement, a time in life when friendships have a depth rarely repeated later in life. 

I could barely contain my own heartache, but I was struck at how Becky exuded a glow of positive peace. She radiated a sense of contentment. This unexpected aura of calm was jarring to me, unsettling given my own state of mind.

It hadn’t occurred to me that she had not lived with him for over 15 years, that she had built another life for herself. She had been just as distant from her ex as I had in his last years.

But still, she had spent 20 years of her life with him, bore his children. I really expected a different demeanor given the circumstances. I expected tears and anguish. Instead I got utter calm.

I mentioned to her that I had lit a candle for Mike at my church, which led to her eagerly quizzing me about my church going habits. I mentioned that I had recently led a service at the church. She seemed intrigued and asked me what it was about. I replied that it was about what we are learning about our ancestry from the study of DNA and natural selection.

“You don’t believe in that stuff do you?” she asked.

I was shocked, as I view evolution to be as established as the earth revolving around the sun.

I took a deep breath and replied that I did believe in evolution and felt it is our best answer to some big questions, all the while hoping I didn’t appear stricken at the implications of her question.

“Well lots of people study evolution and end up believing in intelligent design”, she said. “I believe the earth and man were created six thousand years ago.”

The circuitry in my brain skipped a beat. This was not a conversation that needed to occur on this day.

“We will have to agree to disagree ” I said and quickly shifted the conversation to questions about her current life.

Becky, in the wake of the divorce, in the wake of her own difficult release from addiction, had been born again, had accepted Jesus as her Savior. Her life now revolved around the Church, around spreading the Good News.

She no longer worries about the past, it is all forgiven. She no longer worries about the future, it is eternally taken care of. All she needs to consider is the moment. She live as a mammals were meant to, in the moment. The mammalian brain loves certainty, loves absolutes. She had found a way to break free of the past, to be liberated from the future.

Frankly, on the day of Mike’s wake I envied her.

Her way, the way of so many people, is to embrace faith in a supernatural divinity, and is to my eyes, to my intellect, a rejection of reason, an embrace of false assumptions. The foundation of this approach to life, in my estimation rests on sand. But oh the results! These good souls are in the moment and are rewarded for it. I am compelled to judge the embrace of the supernatural as foolishness, a blank slate that allows demagogues to write any  deceptive and manipulative script they wish on that slate. But on the day we faced Mike’s death, the advantages of this approach were obvious. It was a day of relentless heartache for me, another glorious day in God’s warm embrace for Becky.

The thesis of my talk this morning is simple. We were designed by creation, by natural selection, to live in the moment. The unusually proficient human cerebrum allows, in fact insists, that we escape the moment. The human brain hosts a constant battle between the older mammalian brain and the newer neo-cortex, a battle between the moment, the past, the future. Our mammalian cousins live contentedly in the present, but humans, alone among creation’s creatures, have developed in a way that undermines this fundamental design.

Something happened, a mutation, an evolutionary leap, that made our cerebrum vastly different from other mammals. 

Our cerebrum’s evolutionary experiment in consciousness allows us to accomplish tasks that are astonishing. Man’s achievements in science, engineering, architecture, mathematics, music, art, literature have catapulted mankind into a dimension of existence unlike any other living thing on earth.

Conversely, our capacity to mentally travel in time, to escape the moment, has made mankind the most neurotic, most dangerous, most troubled creature on earth.

Our cerebrum’s wonders have led to modern man’s curse, anxiety. 

Constant stress and anxiety are not normal for mammals, they are the collateral damage of our advanced cerebrum. The many stress related diseases are a result. Ancient man needed fear as a survival mechanism against danger. Fear was only engaged when absolutely necessary. Today, the same metabolic mechanisms that result from fear are constantly engaged via anxiety and stress, resulting in enormous wear and tear on the body’s systems. 

Here is the punchline of this morning’s service. Subconsciously humans respond the dissonance between our mammalian brain and our cerebral cortex.  We react instinctively, trying to get back into the moment, to live in the present, in any of a number of ways, oblivious that our choices are designed for that purpose. We instinctively self medicate ourselves to return to the comfort of the mammalian brain. 

Humans consume monumental amounts of substances that, on first glance, seem to be for entertainment, enjoyment, or escape. Vast quantities of alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs are consumed each day by billions of humans, a curious indicator of discontent with their internal psychological state. The most prescribed drugs in the world, tens of millions of doses per day, are serotonin regulators like Paxil and Prozac, drugs that ease anxiety, ease the stress of living outside of the moment. 

We don’t just use substances to get back to the moment, we also self medicate with ideas, ideas that turn off the cerebrum’s capabilities as surely as alcohol and narcotics. Humans join any number of institutions to try and get back to the moment, any institution that tells them life’s answers with absolute certainty. Such institutions are abundant and ever ready to  embrace new adherents to their absolute certainties. The entry fee is submission and a willing suspension of disbelief. As my interlude with Becky at Mike’s wake vividly illustrated, a belief in the supernatural can end the white noise of anxiety as surely as Paxil, whiskey, or heroin, or Mike’s medicine of choice, beer.

It is my contention that these substances are ingested, these institutions joined, in a subconscious effort to escape the past and future, to return to the here and now, to return to the state we inhabited for millions of years, the state our mammalian cousins inhabit naturally, the present moment. Millions of years of natural selection can’t be overcome in a few generations simply because humans have developed an advanced consciousness in the wake of  branching off from our mammalian common ancestors. 

We delude ourselves to think otherwise.

I had an experience that drove my thesis home in a vivid manner.

Forgive me, but a clinical description is necessary to make my point. The single most contented day of my life was the day , while awake, I had large needles inserted into my nether regions, followed by a razor sharp knife cutting open the most delicate parts of my anatomy.

The day began in abject fear, paralyzing anxiety, precisely because people were going to use needles and knifes on the part of the anatomy most men have a neurotically primal attachment to. As I imagined the possibilities of the immediate future, the reality of something going horribly wrong, I was stricken with terror. The Lizard Brain was in charge.

I lay on the gurney waiting for the procedure to take place, and I calculated the shame I would endure if I ran naked from the hospital and into the streets. In a moment of clarity I realized that the shame would be less than the horror I was about to endure. 

Before I could leap towards the door however, a nurse asked me how I was doing and I croaked that on a scale of 1 to 10 my anxiety was a million. She offered something to help me relax, I sobbed and accepted.

At the precise moment she plunged the substance into my IV I felt a sudden warmth come over me, simultaneously I felt my burdens release. In a matter of seconds I was as content as I had ever been. I don’t exaggerate. For the first time in my entire life the white noise of anxiety humming in the background of my consciousness was absent. I was not unconscious during the procedure but experienced it in a detached state, thinking to myself, “Goodness that is a long needle they are inserting into my living flesh down there, and my doesn’t the doctor have hairy knuckles”, and, as the doctor cauterized the open wound with a puff of smoke, I reflected contentedly on the alluring pattern in the wallpaper.

The procedure passed quickly, agreeably, and after it was over I experienced sharp pain and discomfort but I remained as even keeled and happy as could be the rest of the day, a day that, in spite of the incisions, and blood, and stitches, I still remember with a wistful fondness.

The next day, white noise firmly back in place, I wanted to understand what had happened the previous day. I had gone from hand wringing anxiety to complete peace with the squirt of a syringe. I looked up the drug on the internet and discovered that it is an anti-anxiety agent, a relaxant, and an amnesiac. The drug’s wonder resided in the fact that it short circuits the normal memory process, allowing perception and cognition to take place moment to moment, but not allowing them to transfer to longer term memory. In effect it is a drug that forces you to live in the moment. It served as an inadvertent clinical experiment to confirm my thesis that living in the moment creates a sense of contentment.

The drug is called Verced and in case you are sitting there pondering how to get ahold of some of this miracle drug for self medication, I was disappointed to learn that it can relax you so much you stop breathing, and that it is used by sinister souls as a date rape drug, since it makes you pliable and forgetful. This is not a substance to play with.

But it does support my thesis that their is something magical, something primal, about living in the moment, and the eternal human quest is to get back to that psychic state we inhabited before the emergence of anxiety.

I mentioned earlier that by far the most prescribed drugs today, an astronomical number, are anti-anxiety drugs. Countless millions of doses are ingested around the world each day, evidence of how far afield we have come as a species that we have to regulate our serotonin levels artificially to counterbalance the effects of the modern existence. We are trying to self medicate ourselves back into the moment on a vast scale.

This self medication mankind universally indulges in might take the form of prescription drugs, or illegal drugs, or religion, or food, or booze or cigarettes, and so on. I’m told the reason people are willing to destroy their lives with heroin is because it  makes one oblivious to anxiety. My friend Mike searched for the moment destructively, through alcohol, and it killed him at a tragically young age. His ex-wife found the ability to live in the moment through an acceptance of Divinity and she thrives. 

We each struggle with how to best live in the moment, whether we do so consciously or not. We are all neurotic, and that neurosis is the result of our brains odd and unique ability to obsess over events beyond our control. We are all searching for a way to escape our chattering cerebrum, that vexing organ that exists in dissonance to our mammalian brain.

I would bet that everyone in this room has dabbled in self medication, dabbled in moment enhancers and favor one over others. The choice of self medication technique is of vital importance because most of the choices have side effects that mitigate their effectiveness.

Prescription drugs can have deadly side effects, illegal drugs can dull your senses, send you to prison, or kill you. Alcohol can help you escape the demons of the past and future, is even healthy in moderation, but human history is littered with examples of it’s dangers, as the heartbreaking story of my friend illustrates. Supernatural faith has the fewest physical side effects, but many of us think it has side effects of a different nature that leads to ossified thinking that in turn leads one to being susceptible to manipulation and fanaticism.

Their is however one technique that tricks the brain into embracing the moment, leverages the mechanics of brains function to cast aside the bonds of anxiety, all without physical or psychic side effects. I speak of course, about meditation.

Meditation works the same magic as booze, drugs, medication, tobacco, caffeine, and even religion, without compromising health or intellect, in fact sharpens health and intellect.

A couple of years ago, in mid winter, I attended a meditation session at a buddhist monastery in the western suburbs. We were led through a series of meditation exercises over the course of a couple of hours. At the end of the sessions I was refreshed, energized, clear headed. I pulled out of the parking lot filled with a sense of renewal - and looked up to realize I was driving the wrong way down a multilane highway.

In my normal frame of mind I am sure I would have panicked and driven into a ditch to escape a head on collision. Imagine if I had self-medicated with  alcohol or drugs rather than meditation. The consequences might have been deadly. 

Their are those who, in a similar situation would have cried out for God’s intervention, with indifferent results.

But, having just engaged in two hours of meditation, I calmly recognized my mistake, surveyed the landscape, saw a turnaround up ahead, accelerated forward towards the oncoming traffic, and U-turned around into the correct lane, all without raising my pulse rate the slightest bit. During the experience time seemed to slow down, my actions had a sense of clarity, the fear one would expect did not arise. I stayed in the moment until the danger had passed, resulting in a particularly satisfying outcome.

Consider this an endorsement of the wonders of meditation.

This quest to live in the moment, to return to the bliss of our natural state is mankind’s holy grail, a yearning to return to the non-neurotic condition our ancestors enjoyed in the pre-cerebral state that has made up most of our evolutionary history.

Mankind has blindly, instinctively tried to regain the peace of living in the moment via many techniques, convincing himself that this quest to live in the moment is a spiritual one, grounded in a need for salvation.

It turns out this quest exists just because we want the same contentment provided our best friends, dogs.

The next time you reach for a cigarette, a beer, or a cocktail, or a paxil, or a  or oxycontin, or a joint, or a coke spoon, or perhaps seek to submit to Jesus, or invoke Lord Shiva, or the Prophet Mohammed, you are assuredly trying to return to that place our mammal cousins inhabit so naturally, so contentedly, the here and now. Please consider that their may be a more natural, organic, satisfying way to achieve this state and that is via meditation.

If you are compelled to look for a guru for guidance consider this. The best guru is incapable of deception, is imbued with loyalty, and lives in the present. In short, the best guru and role model may be your dog, who lives so naturally as we did for millions of years. As seekers and pilgrims our best path may be to the dog rescue shelter.
    
My new guru’s place in my guru hierarchy is still unresolved, his spot on my guru picture gallery in flux. I have embraced Cesar’s message and made it a part of my world view. We are members of a pack, the best place for us is now, and our challenge is finding the best way to be there. Still, another guru is as close as my next trip to the bookstore, or perhaps a show this evening on the Discovery Channel. I am a fickle disciple, and that is the fun of it.







•Postscript 

I visited my hometown this week and told my mom the gist of this homily. As any loving mother would do, she immediately pointed out a flaw in my thesis. She noted that we can’t spend all day, everyday in the moment. If we did life might be contented, but important tasks that require planning would go undone. I weakly pointed out that the issue isn’t to always be in the moment but rather to not always be neurotically out of the moment, that the trick is having a non-destructive way of embracing the here and now. She noted that meditation sounds swell, but when she wants to escape from her worries she works on a quilt and the worries slip away. Then she mentioned how her husband golfs, and my brother walks his dog, and her 90 year old friend plays piano and sings off key, all to great therapeutic benefit. So, my first guru, my dear mother, says meditate if you will, but otherwise just find something you like to do and do it. We could have saved a lot of time if she would have spoken this morning.


Let’s give another of my gurus the final word.

The brain is wider than the sky,
  For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
  With ease, and you beside.
  
The brain is deeper than the sea,
  For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
  As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
  For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
  As syllable from sound.

    -  Emily Dickinson
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