On Biology, Brains, And Human Suffering
Once upon a time, the first microorganisms appeared in our planet’s water, and then eventually got around to evolving into complex life forms. Those life forms ate each other and had sex with each other in a frenzied orgy of chaos, eventually schlepping their way out of the ocean and onto land so they could eat each other and have sex with each other on dry dirt.
The organisms became more and more complex as they figured out better and better ways to eat each other and have sex with each other in the frenzied cacophony. Some of them said “screw this” and schlepped their way back into the ocean, and they got really big and evolved blowholes on the tops of their heads. Others evolved opposable thumbs for climbing up trees and, eventually, brains so large that they needed to be born while still completely helpless due to the massive size of their heads. Those brains are the most complex objects in the known universe to this day.
That frantic explosion of biting and swallowing and ejaculating and birthing is where homo sapiens arrived on the scene. Running away from sharp teeth, trying to use those massive brains to figure out how to not get devoured by bigger, stronger organisms, sharpening sticks to poke at toothy monsters that tried to make food out of them, then poking each other with the sticks to try and steal each other’s food when times were lean, running, stabbing, biting, chewing, ejaculating, birthing, running stabbing biting chewing ejaculating birthing running stabbing biting chewing ejaculating birthing running stabbing biting chewing ejaculating birthing running stabbing biting chewing ejaculating birthing running stabbing biting chewing ejaculating birthing runningstabbingbitingchewingejaculatingbirthing, and then all of a sudden here we are in houses with cars trying to figure out why we can’t relax and enjoy the weekend.
We are not surrounded by sharp-toothed mouths anymore. The hungry monsters who once hunted us are all dead or in zoos now. Nothing is trying to eat us. But we’re still running the same primal fear programs we had going when our evolutionary ancestors took those first cautious, perilous steps out of the trees.
And why wouldn’t we be? We literally just stumbled out of the mad chaos of runningstabbingbitingchewingejaculatingbirthing. Scaled against the context of the greater history of life on this planet, it was just a blink of an eye ago that that was happening. Our bodies and brains are still biologically the same as they were back before nature was beaten into submission, back when we could still be eaten by giant toothy beasts at any moment.
So we’re still doing what always used to work for us: trying to use these massive brains to find ways to minimize threats and find security. But the “threats” we target with this deeply ingrained survival habit are not saber-toothed cats and giant prehistoric bears, nor even an inability to find and obtain food; they’re abstract concepts like potential loss of social status, disapproval or disrespect from fellow humans, ideas about inadequacy and not living up to our potential, perseverating on memories about the past and fretting over imaginings about the future.
Nearly all stress experienced by humans living in industrialized societies is a response to imaginary abstract concepts, not actual existential threats to their biology. The existential threats we do perceive are almost entirely illusory fabrications placed in our minds by the plutocrat-owned media in order to manipulate our thinking, buying, voting and behavior, like the notion that terrorists or Russians or Republicans/Democrats are going to destroy us any minute now.
So here we are, living in a world wherein we are surrounded not by threats with sharp teeth and claws, but imaginary threats made entirely of abstract concepts. And what do we do to find safety in that sea of imaginary abstract conceptual threats? We try to use thinking to protect ourselves, which is kind of like trying to dry off using a fire hose while immersed underwater.
In this new world — this new world in which we are no longer a part of the food chain and can easily survive on entirely plant-based diets if we want to, this new world to which we have not yet really adapted — thought is usually the wrong tool for nullifying threats and finding peace and safety. It was an extremely useful tool for figuring out how to sharpen sticks to a point and fend off toothy monsters, for learning how to send sticks tipped with pointy stones flying through the air to impale prey, for learning how to grow edible plants in the soil, right up to the really fancy tricks like discovering how antibiotics can prevent pathogens from killing us. We evolved these brains to enable us to out-survive and out-thrive other competing organisms, in exactly the same way that porcupines evolved quills and chameleons evolved camouflage, and for the purpose of out-surviving and out-thriving other competing organisms our capacity for abstract thought has been extremely useful.
But, as far as practical matters are concerned, that is all it has ever been useful for. It has not been useful for finding a way to relax and be at peace with our own existence in this universe. Hell, a common house cat, with a brain far less evolved and complex than our own, is able to abide in far more tranquility than we are with our full arsenal of language, history, culture and scientific know-how. The house cat doesn’t sit around worrying if it’s adequate. It doesn’t harbor seething resentment for years if someone doesn’t show it the right kind of attention at the right time. It doesn’t sit around perseverating on a cutting quip it could have said to someone at the right time if it had just been a little quicker on the comeback. It just is.
And that’s really what we all want, deep down. We want to just be, the way every single other animal on this earth is able to just be. That’s all we’re ever seeking when we get sucked up into various kinds of addictions, when we fixate on the pursuit of fame or fortune, when we strive to win the approval of our fellow humans, when we scheme to get ahead, when we throw all that away in desperation and devote our lives to religion or spirituality. We’re ultimately just trying to get to some point where we can feel okay in these hairless ape bodies and relax and enjoy this breathtakingly beautiful planet of ours instead of being tormented by compulsive mental machinations. We’re just trying to be.
So we set up these conceptual worlds for ourselves full of labels and descriptions and goals and problems in order to try and get to that point. We label the human organism “me” and build an entire conceptual framework full of strategies for funneling peace and contentment into that “me” character, on the unquestioned premise that we’ll have the same success with those strategies that our prehistoric ancestors had when they used abstract concepts to figure out how to sharpen sticks to protect themselves and learn which fruits are safe to eat. If I can just get to the point where I’m good enough and correct enough, if I believe the right thoughts and do the right things and accomplish the right accomplishments, then I’ll finally be okay. Then I can just be.
That’s all we’re ever doing with the mental perseverations which cause us stress and suffering. But how crazy is that? How crazy is it to sit around frantically arranging abstract concepts in our minds, hoping to find the right arrangement someday that allows us to just be? Aren’t we being already? How could any amount of thinking and strategizing and scheming and arranging ever take us any closer to what’s already happening? Isn’t it weird to think that we can spend our entire lives working our butts off in the hope that one day we will have secured enough resources/ideas/approval/whatever to finally convince our brains that we are safe enough to enjoy a few moments of being before we die?
This is why our species acts so nutty all the time. That’s why wars are fought when they don’t need to be and why we’re killing the very ecosystemic context we evolved in which we depend upon for survival instead of collaborating with each other and our environment to everyone’s benefit. We’ve thought up all kinds of convoluted explanations for why we act so crazy; it’s because people don’t agree with our political faction. It’s because of original sin. It’s because we’re just generally awful. It’s because of this or that minority group. But really the source of all our madness, when you boil it right down, is that we’re all trying to use mental strategies made of abstract concepts in order to feel okay, and it will never, ever work. We have an unexamined, ineffective coping strategy for dealing with our new, much safer world, and it keeps us in a state of stress and fear. This stress and fear is then used by clever humans to manipulate us into supporting political policies and behaviors which do not serve us.
We’re in a clunky, awkward transition phase, like the evolutionary ancestors of whales probably were before they got that whole blowhole thing down, where we’re in a new safe world totally unlike the frantic runningstabbingbitingchewingejaculatingbirthing world of our ancestors, but we haven’t yet adapted to it. The clever humans are able to seize upon our confusion and manipulate us solely because we have not yet figured out that it’s safe to just be.
Well, check it out my friend. That safety you seek is right here, right now. Look around you. Do you see any man-eating sharks? Is there a truck bearing down on you right now? Is there anything in your immediate vicinity that you need to run away from?
No? Well then you are safe. Wahoo! You made it. You are free to just be. You have total permission. It’s okay, I promise. You can totally do this for the next few minutes and the world will not miss you.
Feel how you are gently secured to the planet’s surface by gravity. Feel how solid the ground is underneath you. Wriggle your bum deeper into your chair and take a big yawn in to your lungs. Move your body around and feel the delicious stretch in your muscles. Here we are, safe and sound. Think to yourself “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
The organism through whose eyes you are currently peering is already fully present. Being is happening currently. You have been searching for something you already possess, like a woman searching the entire house hunting for the hand bag she’s wearing over her shoulder. It is safe to settle into the amazing feat of evolutionary engineering that is your body and let being simply be.
The old mental habits will keep churning for a while like the blades of a ceiling fan that has been switched off, but if you keep returning to the simple beingness of your own cells those habits will fall away, and you’ll be able to sit in your own presence like all the other organisms in the animal kingdom can. And the sooner we all do that, the sooner human thought can take on its rightful place as a useful tool that can be picked up when it’s useful and set down when it isn’t, and the sooner we can get along with the rest of the life here on this amazing blue planet.
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