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Join or Die FlagThe Gadsen Flag seems pretty popular these days – the flag with a coiled snake and the “don’t tread on me” caption. It has become the symbol of the individual, the independent “me.” There was another flag with a snake on it during the American Revolution, one with the snake divided and the caption, “join or die.” Ben Franklin even said, “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall hang separately.” The individual as a separate self is a distinctly Western concept. But how does it stand up to empirical evidence? Aristotle once postulated that men had more teeth than women, but he did not look in people’s mouths to count to see if his hypothesis actually was correct. In Zen, there is an exercise in which you look deeply into your plate of food and you are able to see all the interconnections back to before the beginning. I use a sheet of plain paper when I do that exercise with people. You could even do it with the screen you are looking at. What is there? There are letters and words, but also whatever the surface is made from, whatever is powering it, all the people who made, sold, shipped, mined material, assembled parts and more to make it, those who worked to feed them, those who grew the food, and on and on back to star dust. Nothing and no one exists independently and all and everything are connected to some degree. Any action you take ripples out like the waves from a pebble tossed into a pond for better or worse with consequences intended and unintended.

Louis Cozolino’s book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, is an extensive and remarkable overview of how our brains work, particularly with attachments. Within the first few pages he says, “individual neurons or single human brains do not exist in nature. Without mutually stimulating interactions, people and neurons wither and die.” He goes on to discuss psychopathy in chapter 20 and includes the following:

Think about the characteristics that make for a “good citizen.” We expect each member of society to be aware of and adjust to the needs of others, recognize and conform to shared values, and live by the rules. In most instances, the needs of individuals are weighed against the needs of others and negotiations are established to create the most good for the most people. Antisocial individuals, on the other hand, are a society of one who adhere to the more primitive mandate of individual survival. It is as if they have passed over the eons of social evolution that have selected cooperation, emotional attunement, and being part of a group mind. While thinkers such as Nietsche, Machiavelli, and Rand have extolled the virtues of the Ubermensch (superman) and society even lionizes those who gain prominence and success, selfish behavior has not proved to be a successful overall strategy for group survival. For humans and other social animals, noncooperation and a sole focus on personal survival does not correlate with evolutionary success. (page 339)

I think a more positive and constructive way to function is by showing respect for ourselves and also respect for others and the relationships we all share, and respect for our responsibilities. And unlike Aristotle, we need to count the teeth. We need to look for the empirical evidence and not rely on a paid pundit whether from talk TV, radio, Internet or elsewhere. Researchers found after 9/11 that those who watched less cable news were more resilient and less depressed. Do yourself a favor and turn off those playing to emotions to increase ratings to make sales. You can read about it here and here.

Cozolino’s work is a well researched and well written book that I hope will be widely read. It speaks to all of us on our relationships in this world. [It is also an excellent resource on how attachment theory works on a neurological level, and how we develop secure and insecure attachments.] One concept I have struggled with is the Buddhist concept of “no self.” Mark Epstein’s talk about the spatial versus the temporal self makes a lot of sense to me. We experience ourselves as spatial beings even though we are moving through time and the “self  I was a moment ago is different from the self in this moment. We are constantly changing.  Cozolino takes it further. In order to function in the world, first our brains constructed the concept of “other” and then the concept of “self.” Those constructs enable cooperation, but also competition and egos that fight for supremacy when we lose sight that we all are one and that the “self” is a constructed illusion.  I remember coming across studies in graduate school about how resources last much longer when people cooperate, but when they compete, resources are much more rapidly depleted. One person competing destroys group cooperation, and all are forced to compete to survive, but ultimately, the survival of all is jeopardized and ultimately doomed by that self-centered competition for resources. There is an inherent paradox in those concepts of self and other. We cooperate with those in our tribe and those we perceive to be like us, and compete with those we deem to be different and of another tribe. We tend to forget we are all one tribe and are all in this together. Sensei Corky Quakenbush has written an interesting post on facing conflict with love using the principles of aikido. You can read it here.

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