Fight or Flight

We evolved to survive. Not forever, but long enough for the next generation to become strong enough to survive on their own and reproduce. Unfortunately, the environment in which we evolved in is drastically different than the one we live in. We weren’t designed for the modern world… hell, we weren’t even designed for an agricultural world. Many of the traits that increased the odds of survival in the past are actually harmful in the present.

20,000 years ago the fight-or-flight response triggered by a perceived attack was a very real need. Maybe it was a wild animal or a hostile neighboring tribe that triggered it and that flood of hormones allowed for quick survival. Sometimes our minds made mistakes, that rustling of wild boar in the bushes was really just a squirrel, but the odds of survival was greater due to the false positives. Being wrong 99 times but correct 1 time worked well.

But, we don’t live in the past anymore and the odds have shifted greatly. Not only are the physical dangers when we are out roaming the world nearly non-existent, we are constantly triggering our fight-or-flight in situations where there is absolutely zero chance of real danger.

Take, for example, Facebook. I’m guilty of spending too much time on Facebook. Not only do the constant likes and comments on my post make me feel good (yay, addiction!) but it places me in an environment where it feels dangerous and that I have enemies. It triggers my fear response, which gets the adrenaline going. It is a rollercoaster without the fresh air, a horror movie without the unnecessary topless women running around summer camp.

The chemical cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters isn’t necessarily a bad thing (everyone knows I love a good serotonin rush), but the fight-or-flight response that we evolved with isn’t conducive with modern life. If I want to get a good night’s sleep, the last thing I should do is check Facebook. Seeing a “friend” who posts bigoted stuff is going to pump up my body for battle, not bed. By checking my phone (or even work email) at night I am sabotaging my own desires for a restful night sleep… or anything productive really. This response makes my relationships worse because I focus on the negative instead of the beauty of the world. I’m constantly on edge and stressed out because the system I evolved with is being over stimulated.

So, what can I do about this? Well, recognizing it is the first step, but overcoming it can take some work. As Robert Wright talks about in “Why Buddhism is True”, simply knowing that our mind is responding to evolutionary urges that no longer match our needs doesn’t necessarily lead to overcoming them (just look at food… I know my sugar cravings come from a time when fruit was the sweetest thing around but I still cram donuts in my mouth that destroy my body). What I need

What I need are practices, support, and an incentive system set-up to help me accomplish my goals. That means shutting off Facebook most of the time (particularly before bed), exercising more, reaching out to friends for support, meditating, and finding a way to make my health a moral imperative.

Sadly, I don’t have a lot of answers. I’m going to try to get control over my evolution though. That’s what it means to be human, after all. We have urges to reproduce, eat high-calorie food, be slothful, etc., but we can be stronger than our urges. We are not animals that live only to fuck, feast, and sleep. There is nothing special about reproducing, eating, or napping. Embracing our humanity means seeing these things for what they are, tools for happiness and by defaulting to them without conscious thought we are doing ourselves a disservice. It may feel good (because we evolution requires them to feel good) but that doesn’t mean they are good for us.

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“Buddhism: Plain & Simple” – A Review

Title: Buddhism: Plain & Simple
Author: Steve Hagen
Pages: 159 (including Appendix)
Rating: 5/5 Highly Recommended

It is hard to me to pinpoint exactly when I started to have an interest in Buddhism. I remember learning about it in a high school religion class, but that introduction was little more than “it isn’t really a religion but it kind of is”. I was a hardcore Christian at that time and I have no doubt that I saw Buddhism as simply another Satanic ruse to steal souls from Heaven.

In the decade and a half since high school, my interest in Buddhism has bubbled in my subconscious. I’ve purchased several books about it but rarely finish them. As much as I am interested in Buddhism the works I’ve read seemed unnecessarily vague and complex, I felt like the authors were playing tricks with words instead of just coming out and saying what Buddhism is.

Buddhism: Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen is the opposite of that.

Hagen does a fantastic job of stripping away the ceremony and tradition and supernatural side of Buddhism and gets to the core. He does a great job explaining what the foundation of Buddhism, to simply see the world as it is and to live in the moment. After finishing this book I couldn’t help but see incredible similarities between Buddhism and the Stoic philosophy that I know and love. I can’t help but wonder if followers of Buddha somehow interacted with the Ancient Greeks and helped influence Stoic thought. It seems plausible that in the 200ish years between the life of Buddha and Zeno’s teaching at the Stoa Poikile someone would have made it from India to Greece.

Buddhism and Stoicism are both tools that work to find the truth about the world and encourage rational action in response to the truth. They are about helping individuals live better, happier, more satisfying and authentic lives. This is unlike the faith that I grew up in that demanded obedience to rules and discouraged intellectual inquiry. Buddhism explicitly rejects any hard rules and recognizes that the world is fluid and nuanced and diverse circumstances can easily turn rules into tools of injustice.

Mostly, I enjoy that Buddhism does not need to conflict with scientific discovery. As the Dalai Lama said in the foreword to Destructive Emotions:

I have often said that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understading, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. If upon investigation we find that there is reason and proof for a point, then we should accept it.

Here was a system of spirituality that didn’t conflict with the natural world, and I believe that is why Buddhism will end up outlasting many of the religions of today. I am still far from an expert on Buddhism, but Buddhism: Plain & Simple laid the groundwork for me to continue my pursuit of knowledge in that direction. It is an easy, quick read that is made up of relatively short and succinct chapters. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in understanding this life philosophy.