Velcro. Teflon. The mind. And the future of humanity.
Last week, I was giving a talk on the vagaries of the human mind and how we can transcend them to live a better life. At one point I said, “The mind is like Velcro for negative thoughts and like Teflon for positive thoughts”. We have about a thought a second when we are awake. 95% of those thoughts are habitual thoughts, the same thoughts we have every day. And 80% of those thoughts are negative. (Yes, these are dubious internet stats. But empirically, we can all attest to their directional accuracy). “Shoot, I am late again.” “So and so does not think much of me” “Why do I keep my car so dirty?” “I didn’t quite say that right. Why can’t I get my point across?” “My finances are a mess!” “I shouldn’t have eaten that!” “My kids are so ungrateful and entitled” and so on and so forth goes the tape of our mind.
A few minutes later a woman raised her hand tentatively with a quizzical look on her face and said, “What you said about Velcro and Teflon is so true. But why is that the case? What is it about our brain or physiology that makes it so?” I didn’t have a scholarly answer, but I did have a personal theory. So with that caveat, I shared my take, and I expound on that here.
I think it may have something to do with our evolutionary biology. In the context of our life, it may seem to us like we have led long lives and have had ample opportunity to learn and adapt. But on an evolutionary scale, our lifetime is a blip. If you convert the history of the earth into one cosmic year, and consider that the planet came into being at 00:00 hours on January 1st of the cosmic year and this moment is midnight at the end of that year, here are some astonishing facts:
- Our earliest ancestors from the Homo species (Homo erectus) occurred on the scene 3 hours and 52 minutes before midnight on the last day of the cosmic year
- Our species, the Homo Sapiens took form about 23 minutes before midnight
- We came out of Africa about 7 minutes before midnight
- We figured out agriculture about a minute and 10 seconds before midnight
- The Industrial Revolution began 2 seconds before midnight
- And the digital age (let’s say the last 25 years) has been around for 0.17 seconds
Reflect on that for a minute (a regular minute, not a cosmic minute. You don’t have that kind of time! 😁) In the cosmic year, not much was happening for a long time. And then things exploded. And we have been going gangbusters ever since. And if you think life has become too fast, consider this: the pace of change is never ever again going to be as slow as it is right now! So our environment is changing insanely rapidly. And our brain simply can’t evolve fast enough to keep pace with that. The rate of change has outstripped our neurobiological capacity to adapt.
And what that means is that our reflexive responses are still stuck in the caveman era, even as we live in the safety and comforts of the modern world. In our recent evolutionary history, we were living in the jungle, surrounded by danger every living moment. Survival was our only priority. We were constantly on high alert, scanning our immediate environment for the next threat that could end our game. We were constantly looking for tigers lurking in the shadows. That state of anxiety is hard-wired into us. Our nervous systems have inherited the angst of our ancestors. That internal chain dissolves much more slowly than the pace at which we have been able to manipulate our external environment through co-operation.
And so here we are. Danger has been removed from the daily lives of most of us, so much so that many of us go looking for danger in the form of adventure sports, responding to a primal urge to experience our temporal impermanence because that is what makes us feel alive. And if you are reading this, you, like me, are part of an even more privileged elite:
- You probably don’t live in a country where your own government is bombing you or conducting genocide of people of your kind
- You do not walk 6 miles one way every day to fetch 8 gallons of dirty water from a puddle in the ground
- Your home has not been destroyed by natural disasters, twice, with no insurance or government help
- You are not a school girl kidnapped by Boko Haram
- The risk of your being beheaded by a terrorist is really, really, really tiny
- You probably don’t have to place pots and pans at different places in your house when it rains
- You have probably never had to sleep on the street or eat from a dumpster
- There are likely no holes in your clothes, and you have way more clothes and shoes than you need
- You may not have known real hunger or thirst, or if you did, it was a choice, like a vision quest or a religious fast or something
- Etc. etc. etc.
And yet, our mind just finds trouble wherever it looks. And my claim is that that is so because our mind hasn’t evolved as fast as our environment has. Yes, each of us could come up with a litany of troubles in our life. Your mind was probably rattling off that list while reading the one above. But our redemption begins when we realize that that is a choice. We can choose to look at a reference group that is better off than us or we can look at the reference group that is worse off. And I would assert that the demographic that is reading this has way many more reference groups that are worse off than it, than better off.
Albert Einstein is eminently quotable on practically anything. Especially if you include all those things that he never said that are attributed to him. Fake Einstein asked a very important question though: “Before you decide anything else, you have to decide whether the universe is a friendly place or not?” This is so profound a question that I wish Einstein did indeed ask it, but even if he didn’t, it doesn’t take away from the power of the question.
I believe our world starts to form on the basis of our answer to that question. And separation in our experience happens right there. We have biologically and neurologically inherited from our ancestors a shadow of their legitimate experience of the universe being an unfriendly place. But our lived experience is different than that. At least for the subset of humanity represented by those of you reading this blogpost. Not for nothing is gratitude considered the greatest virtue. The more we point our mind to things that we have reason to be thankful for, the lesser the gap between our conditioning and our reality.
And so, we have a very important responsibility. Nothing less thing than the quality of the future of our species depends on it. We must interrupt our habitual patterns of fear and our programming that has us look for tigers in every shadow. The fact that that phenomenon of fear is present in us is not the problem. But if we choose to not interrupt it, despite all the blessings in our life, then that is a problem indeed. Most trouble in the world arises or at least gets exacerbated because we and our leaders (in government, business, education, public sector, non-profits, etc.) still operate from a paradigm of separation, even as, on the ground, the paradigm of connectedness is the dominant reality.
Our brains have been proven to be amazingly plastic. They can be changed rather rapidly with practice. New neural pathways can be developed by taking repeated small actions contrary to our conditioning. For us to focus on the positivity that is rather than the negativity that might be is a powerful possibility. And in that possibility, lies the hope for a better future for humanity.
PS — I wrote this blogpost in a park while my son was at a tennis clinic. I was gone for 90 minutes. And when I came back to the car, I found that I had left my passenger side window fully open with my money clip and credit card case fully visible. And I discovered that because I saw it still there. Is that a sign from the friendly universe, or just a random event? I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. I am just grateful that I am not feeling the pinch of losing a small amount of money and enduring the botheration of calling my credit card companies and bank to cancel my cards and getting a new driver’s license.
If this post resonated with you, you may also find this one to be helpful.