Updated: Sep 17
There is that in me—I do not know what it is—but I know it is in me... it is without name.
-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Attachment is one root cause of suffering. The identities we invent and invest in consume much of our energy and effort. We work hard at being a good (whatever), a true (whatever), the best version of (whatever). The (whatever) is whatever the ego imagines to be the ideal. Under its spell, we strive in vain to be (something). Often that identity is a construct assigned to us by others to which we attach and conform. Yet who and what we are is sufficient unto itself whether we realize this or not. This level of being is indifferent to the masks ego insists we wear, the roles we assume, or the games of self-deception we play.
Meditation helps us see past the illusions. The more we let go of our attachments, the more detached we become from the insistence of ego to be this way or that. The teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj advised his students to look within: "Everything must be scrutinized and the unnecessary ruthlessly destroyed. There cannot be too much destruction. For in reality, nothing is of value. Be passionately dispassionate- that is all."
The deeper we drop into being, the more connected we become to What Is. Sounds mystical. It isn't. Right now, for example, you are being breathed. Your ego has nothing to do with it. In fact, the disjointed, chaotic thought patterns you may identify with as you can dysregulate the breath. I will call this seeming self the little self. The little self imagines some future probability that doesn't come to pass and feels anxious around that; your breathing pattern changes, your heart rate changes, your physiology changes. The little self imagines some perceived slight and gets angry; your breathing pattern changes, your heart rate changes, your physiology changes. The little self ruminates on the past and sadness arises; your breathing pattern changes, your heart rate changes, your physiology changes.
Conversely, when the thinking mind assumes its proper role, as a tool to be used judiciously, we can apply this very faculty to enhance our day to day experiences for ourselves and the whole of which we are a part. We can marvel at the complexity of breathing and appreciate its beauty and inherent perfection. Life unfolds moment by moment because the breath comes- so seemingly simple, this in-flowing and out-flowing. It is effortless. The deeper I drop into being, the more I am connected to the life that pulses within me and you.
Yet attention is not here. Few concern themselves with the mechanics of the inbreath and outbreath. Some only realize its preciousness as death approaches and they rattle their last. Most go through life attached to their thoughts- which come courtesy of the breath. We are too busy with more "pressing" matters. We ignore the Is-ness of now. Sounds abstract. It isn't. The leptons, photons, quarks and subatomic particles that make up the atoms that make up the proteins and organelles that make up the cells that make up the organs that make up you have their own knowing. Our cells live and replicate and die. They ingest and digest. They reproduce and fight. They metabolize nutrients and convert them to energy. All of this unfolds now. There are billions of cells with independent functions, indifferent to your ambitions. They organize to make up organs of greater complexity. Your liver, for example, has over 500 functions. Right now- not in some abstract, imagined moment- your liver is recovering and eliminating toxins, metabolizing fats and proteins, producing bile, and storing vitamins for later use among hundreds of other vital functions. It has its own knowing having never studied hepatology. The little self does not concern itself with the activities of the liver. In fact, it may compromise the very functioning of the liver by consuming alcohol or drugs to pacify a madness of its own making. And the unexamined mind is capable of the most destructive madness!
The self same power dancing within me, dances within you (whatever the caste, race, ethnicity, religion, title, gender, nationality, or rank you've assumed or were given). The subatomic particles that make up you and me (and trees and rocks and salamanders) are recycled and reconstituted. 98% of the mass that makes up you and me is carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium, and phosphorus. Atoms are arranged in such a way to form specialized cells, like brain cells, from which thoughts emerge. These cells have their own knowing and are firing as you read this. In this very moment, photons of light enter the eye. Rod photoreceptor cells in the eye's retina play a role in perception. Within the rod cells, active zone proteins are arranged over micrometer like train tracks in parallel rows. Signals travel over these tracks efficiently and quickly. You recognize letters on a screen. You assemble them into words and sentences without noticing the clatter of brain traffic or feeling the movement of signals. Neurons communicate across synapses. A single neuron is very small—only 10 to 100 micrometers—and when it fires, its action potential (the spike in electrical activity) only lasts about two milliseconds. Electrically charged calcium ions flow through channels that move these signals across the brain cells. Neurotransmitters are released. These chemical messengers pass through the synaptic cleft to a downstream nerve cell and transmit information. You decipher symbols on a page and read these words effortlessly.
The brain is a collection of functional modules, a connectome of neural networks that help us process data from sense organs (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste), sense detectors/receptors (temperature, pain, pressure, contraction, etc). Even if the brain is compromised (e.g. a child is born blind) or damaged, it can make compensatory modifications and reorganize itself.
The brain’s functional architecture—how the brain’s modules interact to produce cognition—appears modular (Bertolero, 2015). The brain generates electrical activity to represent 'reality.' During that process of neural representation, the brain encodes sensory information into models. We experience this complex orchestration of activity as thinking. The brain processes all of this complexity in milliseconds as thought. Our thoughts and moods are influenced by neural representation. Changes of neural representations and brain states impact mood fluctuations over time. These thoughts form part of the super-complex we call ego, the little self.
The little self does not stand apart from the natural order of things, but maintains the illusion of separateness. Yet the illusions have "power" sort of the way a pencil sketch of a mouse in the hand of Walt Disney had power. Mickey Mouse doesn't exist, yet exists. You can find Mickey on lunch boxes and coloring books and t-shirts and bedsheets. There are giant 6-foot mice strolling the promenades at Disney parks. This make-believe mouse created billions in real wealth for investors. An imaginary mouse financed tangible things you can see and touch like rollercoasters and Disney-themed cruise ships, stuffed animals and toys, film studios, cameras, lights and stages. 223,000 people owe their livelihoods to a fictitious mouse that doesn't exist, yet exists.
We can create magical kingdoms with imagination. And we can create hellish realms.
Our atoms are neither white, black, nor brown, yet we identify as such. The power that took you as a single cell and replicated itself millions of times over to form specialized cells was neither Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, pagan nor atheist, yet we identify as such. The cells and tissues that make up this frame are neither left nor right leaning, liberal nor conservative, yet we identify as such. Your blood is not 100% (insert your ethnicity or race) regardless of how authentic a/n (insert identity) you imagine yourself to be. Your blood is made of a protein called heme which is made up of amino acids. You are not (insert nationality) to the bone. The 206 bones that make up your skeletal frame are made of connective tissue reinforced with calcium and specialized bone cells. Everything else is your imagination... and many of the thoughts that have established themselves in imagination divide us. Most are memes- discrete units of thought that spread from person to person within a culture.
Richard Dawkins, the biologist who coined the phrase, writes that memes are to culture what genes are to life. Some memes are beneficial, some are neutral, and some are harmful. Virulent memes, like viruses, infect and, in some cases, destroy their hosts. The memes that promote division, hatred, and fear are examples. The ego is especially fond of those memes which promote the idea of specialness. These memes are highly infectious and have plagued human civilizations for millennia down to the present day. We divide, oppress, and kill over supposed differences, imagining ourselves "better than" and "separate from." Like this, nations, cultures, zeitgeists and institutions rise and fall. And people doff and don new identities and adopt new ways of expressing.
The power that forms the complexity that is you dances in me and them and those over there, or is the arrangement of leptons, quarks, photons, atoms and cells that make up you superior to mine or theirs? When the dance is over, what becomes of that mystery which animates this body? Does the rotting corpse of one esteemed as "better than" smell any different than the rotting corpse of one regarded as inferior? Every corpse decomposes in the same way. The elements that make up you are recycled and returned to nature. The gas molecules return to the atmosphere, the liquids evaporate and rejoin the water cycle, and the bones return to dust and the rock cycle.
"Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return." Genesis 3:19
When life ends, are we sorted by the identities we were assigned or later assumed during our time here? Does one ascend to a Russian Orthodox heaven another to an Irish Catholic heaven, a Theravada Buddhist heaven, a Sunni or Shiite heaven, Xibalba or Valhalla? Are we reborn or do all of these illusions dissolve back into nothingness once the Mystery that animates the body vacates? We will have an answer soon enough; all will enter into that mystery. Death is no respecter of persons or titles or rank. Death dispels all illusions of specialness and separation. The ego trembles before Death, the Waster sent to destroy (Isaiah 54:15).
Meanwhile, amongst the living, we discuss and debate, evangelize and proselytize, ostracize or kill in the name of this state, that party, this ideology, that god. Does the Maker of Galaxies and Worlds need these puny arms to kill for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake?
The ego is an accomplished method actor. And our planet is the stage for countless tragedies that are recast generation after generation, lifetime after lifetime: nationalists vs separatists, this sect vs that sect, conservatives vs liberals, identity wars, this ethnic clan vs that ethnic clan, rich vs poor, this tribe vs that tribe, north vs south, this country vs that country, east vs west, men vs women, generational wars, this ideology vs that one, ad infinitum. And we get sucked in to the drama lifetime after lifetime.
As of this writing, populism and nationalism are on the rise everywhere along with increasing polarization and existential fears of annihilation. The national identities of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Ukraine are under threat. Around the world, more than 100 million people have been displaced. Whatever identities they once carried are stripped away as they take refuge in new countries.
In America, as of this writing, we squabble over identity. Race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class and political affiliation are hotly debated. The ego attaches to this or that and does not weary of attacking or defending constructs that don't exist, yet exist.
I identify with the All-That-Is- that pulsing, that mystery that shines in me and you and those people over there. Everything else is secondary. I am an American. I was born in Brooklyn in the seventies. American is one of the identities I wear loosely. If America ceases to be, do I cease to be? The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Did the Soviet people cease to be? Or did they take on new illusions and adopt new identities to fight and kill and die for? What became of the soldier who murdered others in the name of some proletariat utopia that never came to be? What was gained from the intimidation and arrests and gulags and torture?
"Vanity of vanities; all is vanity." Ecclesiastes 1:2
I am a Christian, the son and grandson of ministers. But what does it mean to be Christian? There are dozens of denominations and divisions: Mennonites, Quakers, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Methodists, Episcopalians, African Methodist Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Anglicans, Copts, Seventh Day Adventists, Greek Orthodox, Baptists, Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformists, Calvinists, Christian Scientists, Hussites, Hutterites, and others each with their own doctrines, customs, and notions of rightness. Even the Nazis had their own confederation of churches that preached a gospel compatible with their antisemitic ideology. Jesus was rebranded as an Aryan proto-Nazi, a "Nordic light" at war with Judaism. A blue-eyed, blonde-haired, Palestinian-born Jew still looks down on us from stained glass windows and frescoes in churches around the world.
Would you genuflect before a dark-skinned Christ?
Christians have been fighting other Christians over doctrinal minutiae for millennia, each faction professing to be more right, righteous, and truer than the others. The Great Schism of 1054 split the church into East and West. The Reformation, that lasted from 1514 to the early 18th century, divided Europe into Catholic and Protestant. "The wars were a series of massacres and counter-massacres, vicious retributions, and even more vicious counter-retributions," wrote David Brooks. What brand of Christianity was this? Christ instructed his followers to love their enemies, to "bless them that curse you," to "turn the other cheek," and to "judge not."
While I profess Christianity, I find more kinship with mystics of other religions than extremists within the faith. I wear doctrine loosely. The guidance I find in the religion of my fathers brightens my inner light and illuminates my path through the darkness, just as others find comfort in their faiths, beliefs, and philosophies- religious or not. I was conditioned from infancy to follow this path. I quote Scripture because it resonates with me- it may not resonate with you.
For me, seeking to live the teachings of Christ means complete surrender and dissolution of ego, the courage to "die daily" to the demands of the little self. A Christian life is a life of service and bodhichitta, altruistic compassion. I do not insist that the faith of my fathers is the ONLY way to salvation. I do not pretend to know the Ultimates, and I am highly wary of those who do. Sentencing you to eternal damnation and hellfire for disagreeing with me would be delusional... as if I had this power or were favored, chosen, anointed, or appointed by God to be your judge. I cannot "prove" that there is a God. I do not pretend to understand this Mystery. I been gifted 5 decades of life. Even if I were granted 5 more and dedicated these to study- would I have grasped the great mysteries of life? It is only the hubris of ego that deludes me to believe this.
I was raised in the hood. I identified as poor until I traveled to Central America on a missionary trip as a college freshman. My illusions were dispelled. Poor in America was middle-class in post civil-war Nicaragua and Guatemala. Like the poor throughout the world, I knew the pangs of uncertainty. There were many days we ate only what schools provided for breakfast and lunch. I recalled days when our meals consisted only of flour and salt fried in oil with a slice of government cheese on the side if we were lucky. But by 18, I was traveling abroad and going to college. I was fortunate. Looking through the eyes of the young men born into true poverty, the American ghetto was not the bottommost rung, but several steps up. The ghetto was part of the hazing many immigrants were willing to endure in exchange for paved roads, homes built to code, indoor plumbing, a reliable electric grid, clean tap water, free public education, school lunches, sanitation and waste disposal, access to medical care, reliable public transportation, public libraries, the right to criticize and challenge government officials, peaceful transfers of power, and opportunities for their children to improve their circumstances. Understanding this, I discarded the identity as victim, poor, or unfortunate.
My mother and paternal grandparents came from Puerto Rico. I wear my ethnicity loosely. My DNA points to a "mixed" ancestry. My ancestors hailed from the Americas, Spain, Peru, Cameroon, France, Nigeria, England, Sardinia, Mexico, Norway, Senegal, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Benin, Central America, Portugal, Mali, Columbia, Wales, Togo, Sri Lanka, Japan, Vietnam, China, and India. They were Christians, Muslims, European Jews, polytheists, Confucian, Buddhists, Hindu, and animists. Within this temple, my ancestors worship peacefully. There is integration and harmony; there is no discord, no dissension.
We are all members of the same human family. All humans trace their DNA to a mitochondrial Eve and Y-Adam. We all descend from common African ancestors who lived over 100,000 years ago. Africans started the songline. Generations of our African ancestors migrated out of Africa to populate the world. Generations nursed the whole of humanity for thousands of years, protecting the spirit that now dances within you and me. They nurtured, educated, and defended the Mystery that pulses in each of us- even those who, in their confusion, now hate and look down on others with dark skin. The most racist among us owe their existence to thousands of African ancestors whom they disdain. In hating parts of the self, we cut ourselves off from our own wholeness and humanity, remaining in illusions of separateness, imprisoned in the delusions of ego generation after generation. Race is an illusion and has no genetic basis. It does not exist in nature, yet exists.
Yet even if we were to embrace one another as distant kin, Cain still kills Abel, and God does not intervene.
I salute those who came before me and bow to my ancestors. The descendants of mitochondrial Eve migrated out of Eastern Africa. There was a split in Sudan [L3 haplogroup], another in Armenia [Haplogroup N], China [Haplogroup A], Northern Siberia [Haplogroup A2], the Alaskan/Chukichi Peninsula [Haplogroup A2b], and Mexico [Haplogroup A2d]. My mother's maternal Haplogroup follows the migration of indigenous people to the Americas. Momia Juanita (c. 1450) is a distant relation. According to legend, the teenage girl was sacrificed to Pachamama, Mother Earth, during the Incan sacrificial ritual of Capacocha on the volcano Ampato.
My paternal haplogroup begins with Y-Adam in Cameroon. His descendants migrated north to Chad, Niger, and Libya, then back south to Malawi, east to Ethiopia, and further north to Iraq. My fathers fathers continued east to India, then back west to Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Fertile Crescent. The Haplogroup J2 is thought to have appeared somewhere in the Middle East towards the end of the last glaciation, between 15,000 and 22,000 years ago. The oldest known J2 samples at present were identified in remains from the Hotu Cave in northern Iran, dating from 9100-8600 BCE and from Kotias Klde in Georgia, dating from 7940-7600 BCE. Many ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations flourished in lands where J2 lineages were dominant, including the Hittites, Etruscans, Minoans, the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Israelites, the Romans, the Assyrians, the Persians, and Ottomans. All the great seafaring civilizations from the middle Bronze Age to the Iron Age were dominated by J2 men.
I am also a descendant of the Conquistadores and Taíno, of the Portuguese, British and the Africans they enslaved, of the Inca and Maya. I am of the conqueror and of the conquered, of the oppressor and the oppressed. This is not poetic hyperbole, it's my genetic ancestry.
My DNA like yours- regardless of whatever identity you've assumed- is made up of nucleotides. Nucleotides are made up of 3 parts: a phosphate group, a sugar group, and a nitrogen base, not an Indigenous, Polynesian, or Arab group. There are 4 bases: adenosine (A) not Asian, thymine (T) not Tutsi, cytosine (C) not Caucasian, and guanine (G) not German. There are 3 billion base pairs; 99.9% of the human genome is identical. There is no Puerto Rican sequence or Scottish sequence or Hutu sequence. Yet, we take those differences- which are largely cosmetic and superficial- and create division, hatred, and hell on earth.
In madness, we are alike.
DNA tests look for variation scientists call single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, called snips). The sequence ATCGTT, for example, might instruct for blue eyes, while ATCGCT might instruct for brown. SNPs are passed down from generation to generation. The more SNPs we share in common with others, the more likely we share common ancestry.
My history is world history. Historic events shaped me. About 50% of my DNA traces back to Iberia (Portugal and Spain) with traces of North African- although my DNA is neither Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Spanish, nor African.
From 711 AD to the fall of Grenada in 1492, the North African Moors occupied Iberia. For 700 years, the peninsula was under Islamic rule. This period was considered the Golden Age of Islam; scholarship thrived. Muslim scholars synthesized knowledge from ancient Greece, Persia, India, and China. Progress in astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, architecture, and philosophy flourished in Moorish Spain.
Iberia resisted Moorish occupation. In 1469 King Ferdinand of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile. King Ferdinand directed the armies of Castile and Aragon in a campaign against the Moors in Grenada. The Crown won and formed a proto-nation state called Spain, establishing a New World Order. The conquest of Grenada in 1492 made it possible for the king to support Christopher Columbus' voyages of exploration across the Atlantic.
When Columbus arrived in the Americas, he encountered the Taino, the indigenous people of Borinken. Of them he wrote: "They were very friendly to us. I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted. Afterwards they came swimming to the boats, bringing parrots, balls of cotton thread, javelins, and many other things... which trade was carried on with the utmost good will. All whom I saw were young, not above thirty years of age, well made, with fine shapes and faces... Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them. It appears to me, that the people are ingenious. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them. They are of a very keen intelligence and men who navigate all those seas, so that it is wondrous the good account they give of everything. These people are so amiable that even the King took to calling me brother..."
When Columbus landed, he took possession of the islands for the king and queen, "making the declarations that were required" and renamed the island San Juan Bautista.
In a letter Columbus presented to the Taino and Arawak Indians, King Ferdinand of Spain wrote:
In the name of King Ferdinand and Juana, Queen of Castile and Leon, etc., conquerors of barbarian nations, we notify you as best we can that our Lord God Eternal created Heaven and earth and a man and woman from whom we all descend for all times and all over the world… God chose St. Peter as leader of mankind... He seated St. Peter in Rome as the best place from which to rule the world. He was named Pope... The late Pope gave these islands and mainland of the ocean and the contents hereof to the above-mentioned King and Queen, as is certified in writing and you may see the documents if you should so desire. Therefore, Their Highnesses are lords and masters of this land.
Therefore, we request that you understand this text, deliberate on its contents within a reasonable time, and recognize the Church and its highest priest, the Pope, as rulers of the universe, and in their name the King and Queen of Spain as rulers of this land, allowing the religious fathers to preach our holy Faith to you. You own compliance as a duty to the King and we in his name will receive you with love and charity, respecting your freedom and that of your wives and sons and your rights of possession and we shall not compel you to baptism unless you, informed of the Truth, wish to convert to our holy Catholic Faith as almost all your neighbors have done in other islands, in exchange for which Their Highnesses bestow many privileges and exemptions upon you. Should you fail to comply, or delay maliciously in so doing, we assure you that with the help of God we shall use force against you, declaring war upon you from all sides and with all possible means, and we shall bind you to the yoke of the Church and of Their Highnesses; we shall enslave your persons, wives and sons, sell you or dispose of you as the King sees fit; we shall seize your possessions and harm you as much as we can as disobedient and resisting vassals. And we declare you guilty of resulting deaths and injuries, exempting Their Highnesses of such guilt as well as ourselves and the gentlemen who accompany us. We hereby request that legal signatures be affixed to this text and pray those present to bear witness for us, etc.
Today, the letter would read like the ramblings of a psychotic madman. In 1492, however, the authority of the king went unquestioned. The Pope was considered infallible. The circular reasoning and logical inconsistencies went unexamined. And the decree was followed through to the letter. My Spanish ancestors did indeed "use force" against my indigenous ancestors, "declaring war" upon them "from all sides." The "friendly" Taíno who showed the Spanish "much love" and who knew no weapons were defenseless. The Spanish enslaved their "wives and sons" and sold them or disposed of them as the king saw fit. They did indeed harm them as much as they could, declaring the Taíno "guilty" and "exempting" themselves of any responsibility for the slaughter that followed.
The Spanish took possession of indigenous lands by force. The island was renamed Puerto Rico in 1521, or "Rich Port," after the Spanish discovered gold along its rivers. In A Brief Account of the Destruction on the Indies, Father Bartolomé de las Casas wrote of Spanish atrocities committed by soldiers:
In the Island of Hispaniola, to which the Spaniards came first, these slaughters and ruins of mankind took their beginning. Which when the Spaniards saw, they came with their Horsemen well armed with Sword and Lance, making most cruel havocs and slaughters among them. Overrunning Cities and Villages, where they spared no sex nor age; neither would their cruelty pity Women with child, whose bellies they would rip up, taking out the Infant to hew it in pieces. They would often lay wagers who should with most dexterity either cleave or cut a man in the middle, or who could at one blow cut off his head. The children they would take by the feet and dash their innocent heads against the rocks, and when they were fallen into the water, with a strange and cruel derision they would call upon them to swim. Sometimes they would run both Mother and Infant, being in her belly quite through at one thrust. They erected certain Gallowses, that were broad but so low, that the tormented creatures might touch the ground with their feet, upon every one of which they would hang thirteen persons, blasphemously affirming that they did it in honor of our Redeemer and his Apostles, and then putting fire under them, they burnt the poor wretches alive.
The Spanish "divided and separated families, taking women from their husbands, daughters from their parents," wrote de las Casas, and gave them "to the Seamen and Soldiers... how many widows did they vitiate, how many married women adulterate, how many virgins did they ravish, how many did they enslave..."
In 1593, Portuguese soldiers, sent from Lisbon by order of Phillip II, composed the first garrison of the San Felipe del Morro fortress in Puerto Rico. Some men brought their wives, while others married women from the island. Another Iberian appears in my timeline around this time. Were my Portuguese ancestors among the soldiers?
15% of my DNA traces back to the Americas. Indeed, the earliest strands go back 66 generations to 320 A.D. My indigenous ancestors were Taíno who were known to have settled on the island from at least 2000 BCE. Between 120 and 400 AD, Arawak Indians canoed up from the Orinoco River, island-hopping throughout the Caribbean, influencing the Arawak-speaking Taíno culture of Boriken. Other ancestors hailed from Columbia, Mexico's Yucatan (a Mayan province), and Peru, the seat of the Inkan Empire.
When the Spanish arrived, native cultures were destroyed. Millions of indigenous peoples died from New World diseases, war, or from the starvation and devastation that followed the conquest. Those who survived were cast as inferior. The descendants of the "ingenious" and "amiable" Taíno of "keen intelligence" were taught a whitewashed history that marginalized them, extolling the virtues and contributions of the conquerors, celebrating their accomplishments.
Columbus Day was observed when I was a boy- 400 years after the conquest.
I feel something that has no name when I imagine the horrors my ancestors experienced at the hands of other ancestors. To enslave another human being, to kill, to oppress, to humiliate, and to harm one must first deny one's own light, humanity, and commonality.
The separated self creates laws and structures to justify killing, institute slavery, excuse oppression, promote hatred, commit genocide, codify cruelty, and defend injustice. Those who sow seeds of violence and hatred and fear are not spared. Harming others we first harm ourselves.
"If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!" Matthew 6:23
To quiet their troubled minds, some of my ancestors reified their thoughts and recruited the pious to sanctify them, men of letters to ratify laws formalizing new racial caste systems, marshaling soldiers to enforce them, and promoting pseudoscience to sort and rank others by intelligence and worth.
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued Dum Diversas, a papal edict (ironically called bull), that gave Afonso V, the king of Portugal, authority to conquer Arab Muslims and pagans, consigning them "to perpetual servitude." The Holy Father blessed the unholy slave trade.
My genetic timeline reveals an explosion of genetic diversity around the time the Atlantic slave trade began. 21-22 generations ago [1420-1505] there was an admixture of Spanish, Taíno, British, North West European, Mende (Sierra Leone), and Gambian blood.
25% of my ancestry is African. My Spanish, Portuguese, and British ancestors enslaved my African ancestors. Between 1530 and 1555 the number of enslaved Africans in Puerto Rico rose from 1,500 to 15,000. The enslaved Africans worked the gold mines or on the fledgling ginger and sugar plantations.
The greatest genetic diversity occurred during the periods of slave trade and Spanish colonialism. 17 generations ago, in the early 1500's, my Spanish, Peruvian, and Gambian ancestors birthed children. In the 16th century, ancestors from Northern Europe (Germany, Scandinavia), Iberia (Portugal & Spain), and Italy were inter-mixing with indigenous people from Mexico and Nigeria. In the 1600's, ancestors from Britain, Iberia, Italy, Northern Europe, Mexico, Peru, and Kenya mothered and fathered my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents.
In the 1700's, 10 generations back, an ancestor from Vietnam contributed to the gene pool. European missionaries visited Vietnam beginning in the early sixteenth century. Missionaries from Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, and Poland came to Vietnam to spread Christianity. Perhaps one of my ancestors was sowing more than the love of Christ.
A Punjabi, a Gujarati, and a Bengali complimented me. These additions may have been a consequence of British trade with India or the later colonization of the subcontinent. Or they may also have been indentured servants. Hundreds of thousands of migrants from India signed multi-year contracts to work in the New World in exchange for passage and pay. A majority went to the Caribbean islands of Trinidad, Guadeloupe, Jamaica and Martinique. Many also landed in British Guiana. Some may have found their way to Puerto Rico. It is all speculation.
The Battle of Buxar in 1764 occurs around the time the Bengali appears in my timeline. In the Battle of Buxar, Captain Munro of England defeated the joint forces of Mir Qasim of Bengal, Shujauddaula of Awadh and Mughal king Shah Alam II.
In 1815 the Spanish government issued the Royal Decree of Graces which encouraged Spaniards and Europeans to populate Cuba and Puerto Rico. Race-mixing was a concern. The decree provided free land to attract new European settlers who were willing to pledge their allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church and encouraged the use of slave labor to revive agriculture. Hundreds of Corsican, Portuguese, French, and Lebanese immigrants arrived during this period. Immigrants from the Canary Islands and loyalists from Spain's former colonies in South America also arrived. Irish, Scottish, and German settlers, too, were granted land from Spain. The race-mixing continued, but the caste structure remained.
A great great great great ancestor from Han China contributed to my genetic diversity in the 1800s. Around this time, European powers forced open several ports along the Chinese coast for international trade. In the 1840s, Great Britain flooded the country with opium, causing an addiction crisis. The Qing Dynasty banned the drug, and a military confrontation ensued. British forces shut down Chinese ports and took Hong Kong- which was not far from where one ancestor lived. A second may have lived in what is today the Yunnan Province. These, too, along with with an ancestor from Sri Lanka and Japan may have been part of the Asian migration that followed the abolition of slavery. Unskilled laborers from Asia entered into contracts with European traders to build infrastructure, work the fields and mines, or do whatever back-breaking work needed doing.
Several European Jews took refuge in the Mystery that later birthed me. Were these Jewish ancestors escaping persecution? Jews were expelled from England during the Crusades. They also fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Inquisition in Spain. They were blended into what would become me.
According to family lore, my paternal great great grandmother came from Venezuela. She helped rescue a sailor from a merchant ship that had embarked from Martinique. They had a child, my great grandmother.
History shakes me out of my lethargy. I bow to all of my ancestors. If history had not unfolded as it did- with all of its triumphs and horrors, its wars and migrations, its injustices and sorrows, I would not exist. One deviation would have broken the chain of causality that carried me to this moment. Great empires rose and fell, but the light of life survived generation after generation. It radiates in me and in you- regardless of the trajectory your soul took to get here.
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul.
Like Whitman, I am a nation announcing itself, (many in one). I reject none, accept all... Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest. The blood of many peoples coursing through me. Within me, the nations are united. I am large; I contain multitudes.
I honor my ancestors. They gifted me with life. I am deeply grateful for this existence. I've alchemized their animosities and hatreds and fears and stupidities into peace and self-realization. It would be disrespectful to live a life unworthy of their suffering and sacrifices or to waste this life away in dissipation and meaningless pursuits.
We can transform the suffering of our ancestors by healing the past in the present as Thich Nhat Hanh asserted. Sounds mystical, it isn't. We bear their scars at the molecular level and hold on to their prejudices and fears at the level of thought. Trauma is trans-generational and gets encoded and imprinted epigenetically.
The prenatal environment affects the cognition, metabolism, behavior, neural structure, development, and epigenetic expression of each newborn who comes into this strange new world. If a mother is under stress, her body will be saturated with cytokines, glucocorticoids, and other chemicals that will influence the development of her fetus. This increases the probability that her offspring will develop post-traumatic like symptoms:
Behavioral: agitation, irritability, hostility, hyper-vigilance, self-destructive behavior, or social isolation
Psychological: flashbacks, fear, severe anxiety, or mistrust
Mood: loss of interest or pleasure in activities, guilt, or loneliness
Sleep: insomnia or nightmares
Cognition: compromised memory, attention, planning, and problem-solving
Also common: emotional detachment or unwanted thoughts
Many of these changes occur at the molecular level and at conception. Sperm DNA is affected. In one study (Dias, et al, 2014), CpG hypomethylation was detected in the Olfr151 gene, suggesting that fears and traumas not only get encoded but passed down. FKBP5 (FKBP Prolyl Isomerase 5), to give another example, is a Protein Coding gene. Diseases associated with FKBP5 include major depressive disorder, asthma, and post-traumatic stress. FKBP5 maps to a location in the genome that affects the glucocorticoid system (Binder, et al, 2008). The glucocorticoid system plays a role in cortisol release. Cortisol is a stress hormone. These stress hormones prime the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to react. When stress levels are elevated, the sympathetic nervous system remains on high alert, lowering stress thresholds. If your mother was stressed when you were in vitro, her elevated cortisol levels would have affected your development and wiring. Pregnant women with anxiety have higher levels of cytotoxic T cells and a difference in the activity of immune markers that circulate in the blood. Now imagine that she was raped and sold on an auction block like a sow, her children snatched away. Imagine this trauma playing out for generations.
In early childhood, a mother's stress is correlated with a small increase in methylation of the child’s NR3C1 gene. The NR3C1 is involved in regulating the HPA-axis which plays a critical role in stress response and the production of cortisol. Extreme stress in early life, like neglect and abuse, leads to more dramatic methylation on this particular gene in adults.
These stressors dysregulate the body and minds of boys and girls differently. Males are more likely to have a dysregulated HPA axis that is associated with depressive symptoms, while females have higher levels of binding proteins for stress hormones that may prevent dysregulation of the HPA axis (Lerner et al., 2023). Unmitigated stress is linked to adverse health outcomes in adulthood and survivors of childhood abuse experience higher rates of physical and mental health problems.
These changes to physiology and cognition reinforced false beliefs, perpetuating inequity and harm. When my Spanish ancestors exterminated most of my Taíno ancestors, the survivors were forced to work the fields. They were not studying at universities. Pre-Columbian culture was mostly destroyed, institutions were decimated, and their identities were redefined. Mathematicians, astronomers, merchants, poets, shamans, seafarers, musicians, farmers, and traders became vassals, servants, slaves. The Spanish equated their trauma with stupidity.
When my European ancestors enslaved my African ancestors, their mulatto children would likely have exhibited the kinds of behaviors associated with PTSD: poor concentration, compromised attention memory, planning, etc. And the more traumatized the child, the more broken the adult.
A toddler's cognitive development could be impaired by stress and anxiety. Measurable changes in sulcal depth and left hippocampal volume may explain the abnormalities observed in toddlers after birth. Many develop persistent social-emotional issues and have trouble establishing healthy relationships with others (Wu et al., 2022).
Early life experiences affect brain wiring. Chemicals released from modulating cells initiate "the branching, or arborization, of axons, the long, slender extensions of nerve cell bodies that transmit messages, on the cortical cells -- and that arborization dictates how effective the cells in the cortex are at doing their job. (source)"
Behavioral responses to trauma get encoded and passed down. Slavery, rape and sexual assault, genocide, murder and small, daily micro-aggressions (insults, humiliations, slights, and neglect) take their toll on body and mind. Children who experience adversity and trauma have a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety as adults. In turn, trauma-based anxiety and depression can increase anger. The worse the trauma children experience, the angrier they become as adults.
There are four biomarkers associated with PTSD. These biomarkers include the glycolytic ratio, which measures how the body breaks down sugar to produce energy; arginine, an amino acid that affects the immune and cardiovascular systems; serotonin, a chemical messenger that regulates mood, sleep, and other functions; and glutamate, a chemical messenger involved in learning and memory.
These biomarkers have been linked to stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. Compared to more resilient controls, individuals with PTSD have a higher glycolytic ratio. Their glucose levels are higher. Their bodies are constantly on alert. This can lead to metabolic disorders like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. People with PTSD have lower serotonin levels, which are associated with depression, sleep and digestive problems, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. They also have lower arginine levels, which can lead to slower than normal growth, intellectual disabilities, and fatigue, among other conditions. Finally, people with PTSD have higher glutamate concentrations, which are associated with increased sensitivity to pain, as well as degenerative conditions like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Huntington's disease.
Their bodies are dysregulated, their minds are agitated, their moods are often depressed, and their relationships suffer. Mental disorders, asserts Christopher Palmer, MD, are metabolic disorders of the brain.
These traumas affect behavior. Trust is associated with the expectation of kindness and reciprocation of cooperation from others as well as compliance with social norms. Breaches of trust aversely affect mental health. This correlates both to reduced gray matter volume in brain regions involved in social cognition and to depression.
In their madness and confusion, my ancestors created structures, laws, customs, and conditions that persist to this day. The brain mediates environmental conditioning. Our socioeconomic status (SES) leaves a signature on the brain that can reinforce human suffering. Research suggests regional correlations between gray matter volume and SES. Researchers have also found connections between the cerebellum (responsible for movement, balance, cognition and learning) and SES (Kweon et al., 2022).
So it was, and remains, common for intellectuals to point to statistics that infer the inferiority of some races and superiority of others based on snapshots or datapoints that do not tell the whole story as the following anecdote from Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel illustrates:
There followed days and nights of traveling. Occasionally, we would pass through German towns. Usually, very early in the morning. German laborers were going to work. They would stop and look at us without surprise. One day when we had come to a stop, a worker took a piece of bread out of his bag and threw it into a wagon. There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought desperately over a few crumbs. The workers watched the spectacle with great interest. Years later, I witnessed a similar spectacle in Aden. Our ship’s passengers amused themselves by throwing coins to the ‘natives,’ who dove to retrieve them. An elegant Parisian lady took great pleasure in this game. When I noticed two children desperately fighting in the water, one trying to strangle the other, I implored the lady: ‘Please, don’t throw any more coins!’ ‘Why not?’ said she. ‘I like to give charity...’ In the wagon where the bread had landed, a battle had ensued. Men were hurling themselves against each other, trampling, tearing at and mauling each other. Beasts of prey unleashed, animal hate in their eyes. An extraordinary vitality possessed them, sharpening their teeth and nails. A crowd of workmen and curious passersby had formed all along the train. They had undoubtedly never seen a train with this kind of cargo. Soon, pieces of bread were falling into the wagons from all sides. And the spectators observed these emaciated creatures ready to kill for a crust of bread.
(Elie Wiesel: Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), pp. 100–101.)
Imagine a Nazi scientist collecting data on Jewish prisoners then extrapolating notions of superiority based on a moment in time. He might say they were animal-like, sub-human, more brute than man, never acknowledging the inhumanity of the systems that brought them to such a low state.
"All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others," the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu said. "When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves." Indeed, by creating illusions of race, myths of pure blood lines, and new caste systems, my ancestors ended up imprisoning their children's children's children to hellish realms of ignorance, fear, lies, and littleness.
Yet, generation after generation instead of reimagining a more equitable world, many defend and perpetuate oppressive structures, playing little, assuming their assigned roles. We assume the world is as it is and has always been. We are given scripts: go to school, get a job, start a family, save a little money, take a vacation, etc. Many of us submit to fear, imagining ourselves as separate, blind to the truth of who and what we are, co-creating hellish realms with thought, imprisoning ourselves in structures of fear that keep the illusions of our little selves safe. Brick by brick, ballot by ballot, bullet by bullet, we build cultures of anger, of hatred, of fear. Law by law, sentence by sentence, jail by jail we invest blindly in societies devoid of compassion, of love, of peace. We see the prisons, but we cannot see the thought forms that imprison us. Thought by thought, word by word, link by link, we chain our hearts to darkness. Shackled to fear and pleasure, the collective "I" mis-creates a world of suffering generation after generation.
I am not pointing fingers (this is a human condition). The African Moors conquered Iberia and ruled much of Europe for centuries. The Spanish conquered the Inca, who were conquerors once themselves-overpowering the Chimú, Mapuche, Chanca, and Quechua and establishing an empire that extended from the Pacific coast to the Andean highlands. One Empire deposed another. The Spanish extracted so much gold from the Americas and spent it so extravagantly at home that they crashed the European gold market. The Spanish monarchy was bankrupt by the end of the 16th Century. Around this time, seven Dutch provinces in the Spanish Netherlands revolted against the crown. The provinces formed an alliance and declared independence in 1581. The Dutch controlled a worldwide network of seafaring trade routes. They created powerful trans-national trading companies and birthed the capitalist economic system we know today. The income from trade allowed the Dutch to compete militarily against the Spanish whom they fought in the Eighty Years' War until 1648 and later in the War of Spanish Succession.
Then the sun set on the Dutch Empire. Economic decline led to political instability which coincided with the emergence of yet another great power- the United Kingdom. At its height, the British Empire was the largest in history and a foremost global power. What befell every power- the Phoenicians, Parthians, Kush, Sumerians, Scythians, Seleucids, Shungas, Incas, Mongols, Ottomans, Inca, Spanish, and Dutch would befall every nation state- including this one.
After defeating the Dutch and French in battles fought during the 17th and 18th centuries, the British became the dominant colonial power in North America. On this new, fertile soil, they established a racial caste system which remained in place even after the American colony declared its independence in 1776.
The colonists formed a new government declaring "all men equal." This new nation was the child of two ideas: democracy and capitalism. Democracy and capitalism were predicated on freedom. “Capitalism,” wrote Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, was “a necessary condition for political freedom.” But this “freedom” was limited. Democracy freed the common man of European descent- itching to be free from the heavy yolk of feudalism- from the fetters of rank and class. They were free to charter their own course and to define for themselves who they wanted to be. Capitalism gave them economic freedom and the ability to unleash their creativity and to use their talents to create wealth.
From the beginning, however, capitalism and democracy were exclusive. Capitalism did not free Africans from the fetters of rank and class, but locked them in chains and traded them like chattel in the marketplace. Their descendants were shackled to the lowest ranks of America’s underclass. Native people were not freed from government intrusion, but persecuted by soldiers, their lands seized and privatized by the government, the tribe corralled into reservations. Immigrants were exploited for their labor. Whole nations became banana republics, colonies, or puppet states to supply the juggernaut with markets, capital, and raw materials.
In April 1898, the Spanish went to war with the United States. American soldiers occupied the island. After the Spanish lost the war, they ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. Puerto Rico became a colony in December 1898, before Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii were added to the union.
My father's father had been a merchant marine and a wheelwright for carriages at a time when the local economy in Puerto Rico was dominated by the sugar cane mills. He served in World War One, then came to New York in the 1920s a few years after Congress approved the Jones-Shafroth Act (1917) which conferred U.S. citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico.
He left Vieques and landed in segregated America. Since its founding by the Dutch in 1625, New York had been the first stop for immigrants of many different nationalities who formed their own ethnic enclaves. Poor and dark-skinned people were redlined and herded into ghettos. My father was born in Spanish Harlem. He became a preacher at 16 and joined the fight for civil rights. My mother was born in Puerto Rico with blue eyes and blonde hair. Her family immigrated to New York in 1946. She met my father in church. They developed a friendship and she fell in love. My father just saw her as a sister in Christ, until he heard a voice saying, This is the one you will marry. They married in 1968, one year after the U.S. Supreme court repealed anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v Virginia.
I was born in Brooklyn seven years after the Civil Rights Act passed. Although segregation had legally ended, the caste system remained intact. It shape shifted and took on a different nuance.
“Poor people are poor because they’re lazy,” a classmate said when I was a sophomore at a high school in a middle-class, New Jersey suburb where my father took a pastorship one year. She spoke in code. We knew she was equating poor and lazy with black and brown. She wore her hair in the same 80s style as the other girls, bought into the meritocracy myth of her class, and spoke with the same New Jersey accent as the other kids- just as girls where I attended a school in Watts the previous year dressed in the fashion of the time, subscribed to the same ideas of their class, and spoke the same dialect as other girls in the projects. Her comment seemed to suggest that if she were black and poor, the child of a single mother growing up in the Jordan Downs Housing Project, she’d be exceptional. She’d adopt white, middle-class values. She’d pull herself up by her bootstraps. That poor girls didn’t was, in her judgment, evidence of moral turpitude.
In forming her opinion, she did not speak of economics or politics; she did not mention public policy, history, law, epigenetics, or globalization. She did not address inequality or injustice. To her 16-year-old mind, she had all the evidence she needed. There was no need to investigate the root causes of poverty; she could journey through the decades never questioning the memes passed down to her as a child. Her socially acceptable biases blinded her to facts that did not conform to the beliefs she was taught and later adopted as her own. Poor people were poor because they were lazy, just as she was intellectually lazy- for this was how the beneficiaries of inequality were taught to "think."
“If you’re poor, it’s your fault.” My history teacher told us when I was a freshman at a high school in Watts. Our tattered textbooks were decades old. Our school was overcrowded and in disrepair. We were footnotes in a book that affirmed and celebrated his history, and a whitewashed one at that.
I took the good with the bad and separated the wheat from the chaff. Much of what we learned was beneficial- like the scientific method, logic, mathematics, poetry, chemistry, biology, physics, music, and the ideals: liberty, justice, equality, and freedom. Many of these sciences and disciplines were passed down from the ancients, contributions made from all peoples of the world. That some of these ideals were championed by slave masters blinded by their own hypocrisy did not invalidate them. An overweight, chain-smoking doctor who advised a patient to eat well and exercise was still speaking truth. "Ideas are true or false, consistent or contradictory, conducive to human welfare or not regardless of who has them," writes Steven Pinker in Rationality.
Often excused as "men of their times," apologists ignore the fact that there were many abolitionists and whites who opposed slavery from its inception. Benjamin Lay (1682-1759), for example, confronted slave owners at Quaker meetings throughout Philadelphia while the Founding Fathers, many of whom would become slave masters, were still children.
From the beginning of this new world order, there were men and women of conscience like Lay who objected to the brutalization of their fellow human beings. These brave souls, who would've benefitted from silent complicity, fought for the rights of the downtrodden. Yet it is telling that most Americans have never heard of Benjamin Lay.
These people are ever in our midst. They were white abolitionists like Thomas Garrett who housed 2,700 escaped slaves, Germans like Schindler hiding Jews during the Third Reich, priests like Oscar Romero fighting for indigenous rights in the Americas. They are Russians protesting Putin's war with Ukraine today and Chinese fighting for the freedoms of Uighurs languishing in labor camps. Often they are ostracized or labeled as race-traitors, anti-nationalists, sell-outs, infidels, unpatriotic, heretics, etc. Anywhere where there is conflict, many choose universal rights over the interests of the tribe.
"Blessed are the peacemakers." Matthew 5:9
My father moved us in and out of America's ghettos and suburbs preaching the gospel, a blend of liberation theology and positive thinking. There was structural racism, he preached, but you were a child of God given the power to change it. No weapon formed against us would prosper (Isaiah 54:17). Poverty was structural, but we could mount up with wings like eagles (Isaiah 40:31). It was a different narrative.
I attended six high schools in 4 years and, by this time, had moved over a dozen times. I made and lost many friends. I learned to accept the transitory nature of my condition. I learned anicca, the law of impermanence. Each move, I had the opportunity to reinvent myself. I assumed new roles and wore these identities loosely, sloughing them off at the end of each stay.
On the pulpit, my father stressed love and compassion. Compassion, not judgment or guilt, was the better filter through which to understand the afflictions of mind and the hellish realms we co-create and perpetuate generation after generation. To suffer is human. Recognizing our interdependence, our commonality, our shared humanity, and suffering is the path to compassion and understanding.
Many reading this may nod in agreement with the universalism espoused here. Imagining that we are woke or inoculated against powerful cultural memes or their influence, however, perpetuates ignorance. We imagine we've arrived, so there is nothing more to do, nothing to question, investigate, challenge, or explore. We remain asleep, imprisoned in what the ancient Toltecs called the Mitote (the Dream), in what Buddhists and Hindus call Maya (the Illusion). Many remain bound to this dreamlike world.
Many are they that are deluded thereby, believing what is false. 2 Thessalonians 2:11
Sounds woo woo. It isn't. As you read, here and now, photons of light are converted to electrical signals that are sent to the visual cortex. Information flows from the retina through the thalamus to the visual cortex. In the visual cortex, information gets processed in multiple stages. 90% of the connections coming into the visual cortex, however, carry predictions from neurons in other parts of the cortex (Feldman Barret, 2017). Only a fraction of what we 'see' is raw, visual input. Your mind is filtering the content, conceptualizing to interpret sense experience, and deciding how to respond to these self-made constructions. In a recent study published in the apex journal Nature, researchers found that visual perception at the retinal level changes to maximize personal gain. Our cognitive biases are not just inaccurate judgments, but play an integral role in how we behave and see the world. Tibetan Buddhists call this deluded perception.
A w is a w. An o is an o. An r is an r. A d is a d. In an instant, your mind stitches these together to form a word. But a word is not just a word. No two readers will interpret these words in the same way.
These letters are mere symbols. What we see is filtered with predictions, evaluations, memory, emotion, and identification that are pulled from other parts of the mind. In other words, we co-create what we see. It is a representation, augmented by biases, heuristics, memes, and thoughts that go unquestioned, unchallenged, and unexamined. This brain rendering is what the ancients called Mitote. This is Maya.
These words are meaningless without a mind to string them together and assign them value. These sentences will be filtered through the mind and assigned different meanings depending on one's experiences, memories, and attachments to identity (Note: I implicate myself here and do not pretend to be author of reality nor am I the arbiter of truth. These sentences are constructs, not truth. Truth is beyond constructs and words. Truth simply is). At best, these words are mirrors, reflecting back what your ego looks like and where it stands vis-a-vis attachment to thought.
The eye is processing thousands of bits of information, selecting some data as more important and worthy of attention. If you find this text relevant, attention will be here. Attention is overt. You would ignore background "noise." You would probably not be consciously aware of objects in your peripheral field. Miniscule eye movements called microsaccades, however, perceive the goings on around you. This faculty of awareness is covert attention. Microsaccades boost or diminish the strength of the brain signals underlying attention (Yu et al, 2022). Any deviation from the norm, and your brain, ever vigilant, will notice before "you" are consciously aware. Covert attention causes a modulation of certain neuronal signals in the superior colliculus, which is involved in the detection of events. This "Knower" will turn your head away from the screen to assess the perceived importance of the distraction. The eye shift is a saccade. The movement brings the event into our high-resolution central vision.
The brain reacts to feedback between neurons in different parts of the visual system. Some neurons may reverse course and send information back to the first stage for processing. If you were white and taught as a boy that black people were bad or dangerous, the brain could render a gun where there was a wallet, as happened with Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Ghana who was killed in New York after reaching for his wallet to produce his i.d. An innocent man died. The police officers testified that they felt threatened and thought the man was reaching for a gun. And we left it at that, taking sides and playing our respective roles. The Mitote remained intact.
In a recent neuroimaging study, researchers found partisanship-dependent differences in brain response when people were exposed to political messaging from their own side or opposing political sides. Interestingly, these differences in the brain response emerged in early brain regions, such as regions involved in vision, hearing, and movement. The response in these regions was so pronounced, researchers could predict an individual’s political orientation from sensory, motor, and somato-sensory regions alone.
In a 2003 study, neuroscientists found that race-biased responses could be made despite the activation of neural systems that detect the need for control. In other words, our biases can override the raw data received from the senses and perceive threats that are not there. In a 2021 study, researchers found that our unexamined biases could effect visual processing, attention, inhibition, and error processing. We respond to our interpretations and mental models of our creation.
“No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart.” Nehemiah 6:8
Much of the disorder and darkness and evil we attack is in the mind, not out there. All sense data is filtered through memory, belief, biases, and identification such that two people can listen to the same speech by the same leader, for example, and come away with opposing views. One listens to a speech by Stalin and is moved to the depths; another is repulsed to the core.
To educate the public about implicit biases, researchers at Harvard devised a battery of implicit association tests on race, religion, gender, health, and other topics. These tests help us recognize biases which distort our perceptions and attitudes toward others.
We can lie to others and we can lie to ourselves. We can pretend to be color-blind, impartial, unbiased, just, or fair-minded, but brain imaging studies reveal uncomfortable truths.
Recognizing how our biases filter what we see is a step toward liberation. We acknowledge that we don't see individuals, but a kind of augmented reality distorted by our preconceptions and presumptions.
Many of these biases are the glue that keeps social structures together. Even if we wince at an uncle's racist joke, we may say nothing. The desire for social acceptance is profoundly human. There is in-group pressure to conform to some archetypal ideal of a good or true (whatever). The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) tracks the weight of others' opinion in social interactions (Mahmoodi at al, 2022). This leads to conformity. The desire to conform is more powerful than facts. We are more likely to conform than to be influenced by information that challenges our biases.
“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote 150 years before brain imaging technologies could test his assertion. Can I fault an ancestor for wanting to be a good little boy or girl and believing what they were taught? "The virtue in most request is conformity... For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure."
Most cultures punish any deviance from the norm. As the Japanese expression goes: 出る釘は打たれる (Deru kugi wa utareru) The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.
However dark the Mitote or misguided the zeitgeist of the times, people will more often conform than not. In many of the cultures I passed through, anti-intellectualism, alcohol or drug abuse, violence, xenophobia, unhealthy eating habits, and fear were not only normalized, but embraced as part of the culture.
In a recent study, scientists uncovered how memories and fear-responses could be transmitted through social interactions. Social interactions and collective trauma could trigger and modulate memory. "Social stress reactivates hippocampal traces of fear memories and thus amplifies fear recall," the authors observed. Demagogues often capitalize on these collective memories to create narratives of retribution, to stoke xenophobic fears, or to restore a people to a past glory or a time when they were esteemed as "better than" or "separate from."
Demagogues exploit a vulnerability that researchers are only beginning to understand. In a recent study, researchers found that individuals who shared an ideology had similar neural fingerprints or representations around certain memes (e.g. political buzz words, images, symbols, etc) and experienced greater neural synchrony when engaging with political content. Their brains, moreover, sequentially segmented new information into the same units of meaning. In other words, the brain can be programmed to receive and processes new information in such a way as to foment polarization.
It takes the acquiescence and agreement of millions to uphold and defend collective beliefs and illusions- however dark the Mitote or misguided the zeitgeist of the times. Hitler, for example, was a middle-aged vegetarian. He wasn't a Panzer tank commander. He didn't lay a brick to a single building in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. He didn't score the music for the propaganda films or police the Warsaw ghetto. He didn't smelt the steel for the warplanes or keep inventory of munitions. He didn't self-finance the war or issue war bonds. We hold Hitler responsible for the murder of millions, yet he had no documented kills- not one. No strongman is that strong. It takes the agreement and complicity of millions to oppress, enslave, or exterminate others.
Neural populations in different people synchronize with one another during social interaction. In a recent study, researchers found that neurons within one brain were activated simultaneously with similar neuron populations in another's brain when the participants cooperated to complete a task, as if the two brains functioned together as a single system for creative problem-solving. This is another vulnerability that can be exploited.
Coercive persuasion is another way to influence conformity via interpersonal and in-group influences. Coercive persuasion was coined by Edgar Schein in 1961 who studied Chinese indoctrination techniques on POWs. According to Schein, "the essence of coercive persuasion, ..., is to produce ideological and behavioral changes in a fully conscious, mentally intact individual." Schein noted that elements of coercive persuasion existed in many organizations such as college fraternities, established religion, social rehabilitation programs, the armed forces, and other conventional institutions.
The psychologist Robert Cialdini identified other "weapons of influence" which persuade us to conform: social proof- the need to be seen as a good (insert identity), commitment and consistency- the need to be seen as a committed and authentic (insert identity), liking- the need to be accepted by those we imagine "better than," authority- deferring to those we perceive as "superior" in intellect, rank, status, popularity, morality, etc, and scarcity- the perception that something is more valuable when it is limited. Ego loves exclusivity. Ego loves to be stoked, singled out, and indulged with privileges or status.
Neurons in the anterior cingulate region of the brain keep tabs on social rank (Li et al., 2022). This information informs our decisions and drives competitive behavior. And it is context-dependent. To be born with a DNA sequence ATCGTT that instructs for blue eyes is chance. My mother was born with a single mutation in a long gene sequence called KIT ligand. She had blonde hair. The random sequence and chance mutation conferred a social advantage in a Mitote where such superficial traits were assigned value and associated with moral virtue, intelligence, beauty, honesty, and trustworthiness. In another country, status might be given to those with different physical features, or to members of a particular religion, to graduates from a particular school, to members of a particular ethnic clan, to those who hold a particular ideology, to those who wear certain vestments or accoutrements, etc.
The anterior cingulate cortex also seems to play a role in registering pain and modulates empathic responses for those in the same perceived group (Xu., 2009).
Even if we were all alike, however, the ego would find some difference over which to divide and kill over. Millions of Chinese killed millions of Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. Millions of Russians killed millions of Russians during the Bolshevik Revolution. Millions of... is there a nation that has not had civil war or internecine conflict? The separated self, alienated from the whole of which we are a part, will create division- in-groups and out-groups. In his seminal work on experiments in intergroup discrimination (1970), Henri Tajfel found that people automatically discriminate against those who are not part of their own group regardless of the constitution on the "in-group." These groupings can be as arbitrarily categorized as by test results.
Famed educator Jane Elliott was able to recreate intergroup discrimination simply by dividing a class of American, middle-class, white children by eye color.
In a recent study, researchers found that aggression toward members was positively associated with activity in the ventral striatum-the so-called pleasure center of the brain. The findings suggest that harming out-group members is especially rewarding and associated with the experience of positive emotions. Such psychological reinforcement mechanisms may help explain why humans seem so prone to intergroup conflict (Lasko, 2022).
Demagogues exploit this vulnerability and promote a kind of cultural narcissism that stresses exceptionality and specialness. The greater the insecurity of the times, the more people are likely to bond over appeals to a collective sense of self-trumpeting grandiosity. Facts don't matter as much as conformity. People form identities around powerful emotions such as fear, anger, and contempt. Incompatible facts that run counter to beliefs are ignored or rejected (Nyhan, 2017; Taber, 2006). A challenge to the worldview is a challenge to the egoic self and is perceived as a threat. We polarize when we feel threatened (Bail, 2018).
Of course, we're not like those people. We're more spiritual, more enlightened. This, too, is an egoic trap.
The ego is fragile and is both easily threatened and easily offended which is why words like these are regarded as seditious in many parts of the world and sharing words like these can be dangerous. Many have been imprisoned, blacklisted, canceled, disappeared, or killed for questioning authority or promoting compassion and human rights.
Yet I do not write with illusions for a more just world. Not all the Buddhas, martyrs, saints, or prophets have succeeded in changing the world- not even Christ, the god-man. This world by its very nature is painful and illusory. It is enough to save yourself from delusion and hatred.
The poet Rumi wrote: “You have the habit of walking slowly holding grudges and resentments. Ill-tempered and greedy, small-minded, and with so many attachments how do you expect to attain union? Leave this muddy water and seek clarity.”
Meditation is one path to that clarity. When I say meditation, I am not referring to the McMindfulness commercialized today that promises stress relief, but to the path that leads to annihilation of who you thought you were. The seeming self offers the illusion of unity, control, and continuity. The sense of "i" ness seems solid, real, true. "Today you are you, that is truer than true; there is no one alive that is you-er than you," Dr. Seuss wrote.
The seeming self is socially embedded and defines itself in relation to others. Most emotive words we use- anger, jealousy, pride, love, hate, fear, disgust, belonging, connection, etc.- are properly understood in a social context, relative to our relationships with others. And how we relate to others is mediated by the little self: its evaluations, prejudices, ambitions, fears, desires, aversions, etc.
But there are realms of stillness and bliss beyond the confines of littleness and fear. I can no more explain this satisfactorily to a skeptic than I could satisfy the thirst of a man wandering in the desert. No image of water however realistic, no poem on water however moving, and no lecture however detailed on the chemical properties of water will quench his thirst. The little self must thirst for realization like a wanderer "in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is." (Psalm 63:1)
For a meditator, accepting that a thought occurred is merely an observation. Noting is the practice. That is all. We do not question the mind's outputs; we do not censor them or entertain them. The liver produces bile and proteins, the kidneys remove waste and extra fluid from the body, the lungs exchange gases, the heart circulates blood... and the mind secretes thoughts moment by moment. This attitude is very matter-of-fact. Thinking is simply one function of mind. Thoughts are largely conditioned. We simply observe, allow, watch, and let go. When we let go completely, the mind becomes still and we can enjoy its radiance. We enter into a state of pure awareness, without any self-identification, without being this way or that. But one's desire must be pure and sincere. We must really want to be free of the unnecessary self-identification with memories and thoughts. To know by being is a direct path. The poet Kabir put it this way: "When the Guest is being searched for, it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work."
Self-compassion is another path to wholeness. Sounds New Age-y. It isn't. In a recent study conducted by Thurston, R.C et al, researchers found that women who scored higher on the self-compassion scale had thinner carotid artery walls and less plaque buildup than those with lower self-compassion. They had a lower risk of developing heart disease. Previous studies found that the practice of self-compassion was associated with improved blood-sugar control, stress management, and sleep.
Self-compassion and forgiveness are antidotes to resentment, bitterness, anger, and hatred. Post-traumatic stress can flower into post-traumatic wisdom. In What Happened to You, authors Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry write: "What happened to you can be what happened for you. What happened to you can be your power." We can alchemize our suffering into empathy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness.
Self-love is another path to understanding, learning and self-respect. It acknowledges our common humanity. Self-love is not to be confused with narcissism. For when we transcend the little self, or ego, we recognize our interdependence and the wholeness of which we are a part. Remaining apart, by contrast, is a characteristic of the divided, egoic mind which also seeks aggrandizement, external validation, and specialness. Self-love is dissolution of ego. When ego is quiescent, there is nothing more to prove or to become. Inner peace is sufficient unto itself.
Science can take us deeper. Every human being begins as a zygote. Drug addicts, prostitutes, criminals, priests, humanitarians, heretics, our enemies, the people we don't like, our heroes and best friends all start as a single fertilized egg. Within this single cell are 46 chromosomes, 23 from the father and 23 from the mother. This single cell has its own intelligence, its own knowing. Within it is a blueprint. It self-generates. Each cell contains about 40 million proteins that perform all the tasks the cell needs to function and replicate. The PLK-1 protein, for example, regulates cell division (Barbieri, et al, 2022). Specific proteins must be concentrated in specific amounts, at specific times, and at specific locations. Such a delicate distribution requires extreme precision and intelligence. Protein synthesis is as beautiful and complex for the fortunate and for the unfortunate, for blacks and whites, for the faithful and the heretics.
Another protein, Nr5a2, regulates zygotic genome activation in 2-cell embryos. Nr5a2 is required for progression beyond the 2-cell stage (Tachibana, et al, 2022). Organizer cells instruct the fates and morphogenesis of surrounding cells, steering their development into specific tissues and organs (Arias and Steventon, 2018).
From one microscopic speck grows 206 bones made of calcium, 32 teeth of enamel and cementum, high elastin fibers and collagen bundles to make up the cartilage of the ear and nose. The single cell goes on to produce gases like carbon dioxide and nitric oxide, 21.5 square feet (2m/sq) of skin that senses and repels and protects, 8 yards (7.5m) of intestines, lungs, one slightly smaller than the other to accommodate a heart. It grows you in your mother's womb and knows when to stop growing.
An embryonic neural tube mushrooms into a brain with more than 100 billion interconnected neurons. Neurons in the developing central nervous system and brain congregate in layers, or neighborhoods, fitting into an alignment that will dictate their function. Adhesion molecules grab onto neurons which are pulled into a specific layer or neighborhood and are "zippered" into place (Sengupta et al, 2021). The developing fetal brain grows, on average, about 250,000 nerve cells per minute in utero. All of this knowing and more complexity that scientists are only beginning to understand is contained in that one single cell. A fully mature brain processes millions of bits of information per second and has a memory capacity of 2.5 petabytes. A “petabyte” is equivalent to a million gigabytes, or about 4.7 billion books of memory. Yet it consumes the same amount of energy as a 12 watt lightbulb. This genius is native to each of us. It is indifferent to whatever illusions you have about your intelligence or worth.
I identify with this power, not with the thought forms that are the by-products of this Intelligence. This power abides in each of us. Connecting to this Intelligence confers a degree of confidence, peace, and self-respect that the world does not give. We can then extend this self-same regard to others. I did not create it, and respect the Mystery too much to harm another within whom the light also radiates, regardless of how they choose to think, worship, vote, or express their aliveness.
We are pushed from the womb into the world. We take our first breath. A signal from the brainstem travels down the spine to the diaphragm which contracts, pushing out the ribcage and abdomen. Simultaneously, the intercostal muscles pull the rib cage up and out. The chest expands, the thoracic cavity increases in volume decreasing intra alveolar air pressure. Air is pulled into the nose. It is slowed, filtered, and humidified. It divides into the right and left lungs, traveling further down the airways, dividing another 15 to 20 times and further dividing thousands of times to fill the air sacs where a gas exchange takes place. Molecules of oxygen bind to molecules of hemoglobin. Iron acts as a magnet. These iron molecules are recycled stardust, remnants of supernovae that exploded billions of years ago.
Chemoreceptors monitor carbon dioxide levels which will influence the frequency and amplitude of each breath we take. The muscles relax and we exhale. A pressure vacuum is created and we draw in another small breath composed of gases that sustain us. The atmosphere is made up of the inbreaths and outbreaths of all things that respire, past and present, from cyanobacteria and phytoplankton to velociraptors that roamed the earth during the Age of Dinosaurs. It took billions of years for the atmosphere to assume the composition of gases we took in when we breathed our first breath.
Immense have been the preparations for me.
I have a profound respect for the intelligence that created me and you and those people over there. If you (genes and all) were born in France during the Renaissance, China during the Han Dynasty, Tenochtitlan in the time of the Aztecs, in a New Jersey suburb in the 80s, the projects in South Central Los Angeles in the 90s, or anywhere else in any other time, you would be profoundly influenced by culture and would think, speak, dress, and act quite differently. Such is the plasticity of the brain and the dynamism of culture. We can express in many ways. Creativity is our inheritance. Consider the possibilities... but beware of conforming to littleness.
On this path, we can acknowledge our commonalities AND celebrate our differences. I am not alienated from myself. Even the painful is embraced. While I have dedicated this life to help alleviate the suffering of other human beings, I do not rely on action for completeness nor hope for the world to change to be at peace. The world is as it is.
“In the beginning there was faith - which is childish; trust, which is vain; and illusion, which is dangerous.”
I am not naive. While I wear identity loosely, I know that my passport can open doors for me in some countries and can be a liability in others. I know people will judge me for good or ill based on my ethnicity, social class, or religion. Nor do I pretend to be free of my own conditioning, biases, or delusions.
Self-realization lies in keeping the mind still and the heart quiet. "Who looks outside dreams," Carl Jung wrote. "Who looks inside awakens."
I do not pretend to be awakened, however. I reason from assumptions, conditioned thoughts, and limited life experiences. Much of the science and evidence I present in good faith may someday be discredited. I can confidently assert ignorance, but I am certain of one thing- life is coursing through me here and now. It wasn't earned, but given. I cherish this precious gift, which is, like all phenomena, ephemeral.
The average lifespan is about 4,000 weeks. Time, like death, is no respecter of persons. That Inner Knowing that took you from a single cell knows how and when to die you and decompose you. In that I trust- the Isness. And when appearances dissolve, may we let go of all attachments and illusions with ease and happiness.
Two faces, yet one soul,
you and I…
No more thought of "you" and "I."
Just the bliss of union –
Joyous, alive, free of care, you and I…