Mindful Greetings Friends and Relatives,
The Buddha once said that, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one that gets burned.” Contemporary neuroscience research supports this nugget of wisdom. Continuous negative thinking, feelings, and actions promote the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, into the body which keeps one in state of high alert, flight, fight, and panic. The longer one remains in a negative state the more compromised the immune system becomes. Depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, overeating, digestion problems, allergies, memory lapses, and drug abuse, among other things, are indicators of one’s level of stress and negativity.
On the other hand, positive thinking leads to optimism and happiness. The degree of happiness, how often one is happy, and how long their happiness lasts, especially in the face of adversity, is strongly associated with a positive sense of well being and good health. Happiness is an excellent predictor of how long and well one will live.
The subject of this column is, “How Negative Are Tribal Communities?” I wanted to write about “how happy are tribal communities,” but felt I should first explore the domain of negativity. This particular column is inspired by the many discussions I have had with Indigenous folks about the high level of negativity in their communities. I hear this most often when I am doing presentations on my writing and research about the connections between mindfulness, oppression, health, neurodecolonization, and Native Peoples. Much of the time the topic of negativity in tribal communities is raised by our young, idealistic university students that want to return home to help their communities but are concerned that the negativity will take its toll on them. For the purposes of this column negativity can be regarded as actions, thinking, and feelings that are hostile, obstructive, disagreeable, gloomy, and pessimistic. Before launching into an estimation of how happy tribal communities are, it is important to examine negativity since it is the counter-force to our happiness.
From neuroscience studies we know that the human brain is wired for negativity. Of all species, humans are the Olympic champions of negativity. While we humans do display many acts of compassion and kind respect to the people and things we’ve come to trust and love, in most cases research shows that we are much more likely to take the low road of negativity when we get annoyed or upset. In the book, Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom, Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Richard Mendius, M.D. discuss the human brain, its functions, and its evolutionary history. While they delve into the many beautiful attributes about our brains they conclude that we are programmed for negativity, which is a bit depressing. Oops. There goes my negativity.
Still, there is strength in brain negativity according to Hanson and Mendius; without negativity it would be difficult for our species to survive. For instance, imagine one of our ancient ancestors hiking along the Missouri river heading home after a long visit with relatives downstream. After many miles and hours of not eating, she or he suddenly comes upon a bush that is loaded with bright, beautiful, plump berries, which have never been seen before. Two alarms in the brain go off. The first is “Wow!” “Food!” The second is more measured, thoughtful, and pessimistic: “Hmmmm. Looks tasty but what if they’re poison? Better to wait and eat when I get home; I wonder what mom has for dinnar?” In the second scenario negativity certainly becomes an attribute if, in fact, the berries are poison: disaster averted.I think about our negative brain bias as functioning as an on and off switch that is most often, or most easily flipped to the on position.
While negativity resides in our feelings and behaviors it is most abundant in our thoughts. For instance, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has estimated that we humans have between 12,000 to 50,000 thoughts a day; some folks may have as many as 60,000 (note: I’ve only found this information in second hand sources so I am not sure how factual it is. I am continuing to look for the original study). It is also estimated that up to 80 percent of our thoughts are negative – some of them little irritants like “I don’t like the color of the paint on my bedroom walls,” or “I don’t like how her perfume smells,” or “I don’t like how my teenager wears his pants.” On the flip side, negative thoughts can be horrifying beyond belief. For instance, one can have sustained, intense traumas that they have contracted a deadly illness or that the world is going to end in a fireball of destruction, or after they die they will be doomed to spending an afterlife in extreme, eternal suffering. This last example, in my opinion, is when negativity become a liability, a burden, and unhealthy since the brain has wandered into and imagined a future that may never be.
Let’s define negative thinking a bit more. Negative thoughts arise as we continuously reflect on the many mistakes, guilt, failings, regrets, and secrets we hold from the past and present. They arise because of our uncertainty of the future as we constantly imagine how it may or may not be (which was certainly the case at the end of the last paragraph). Finally, negative thoughts come up because of what we are taught to appreciate, be fearful of, and to devalue regarding our own or another’s gender, race, social status, and perceived intelligence and attractiveness.
In all, many of our negative thoughts about ourselves, others, and the future have no merit or basis of truth whatsoever. And for that matter, they have only limited value when we consider our past, since it is the past, and in order for them to have value we must use the “negative” experiences in ways that create positive responses to similar situations that may come up. For instance, if you’ve said or done something to someone that was hurtful in the past due to your negativity, in the present be mindful to not repeat that action. Much of time easier said than done due to the negative bias in the human brain.
The negativity bias is well-supported and documented by the research of Dr. John T. Cacioppo, a distinguished professor and the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. Dr. Cacioppo used sophisticated imaging technology to show that the brain reacts more strongly to stimuli that is considered negative. His studies show that there is a greater surge in electrical activity when one is exposed to what is perceived as negative versus what is considered to be positive or neutral. In other words, our views are much more likely to be shaped by pessimistic news than positive news.
The last bit of information that I believe is important for us to know about our negative brain bias is that it has been around for hundreds of millions of years. Evolutionary brain biologists refer the oldest part of our brain the hind brain or reptilian brain which we share in common with all other species that have a backbone. So, our ancestors were right – we are related to all life. Our reptilian brain is on duty 24/7 and is in charge of our survival. It controls our body functions such as breathing, heart rate, balance and body temperature, which are essential to life. This part of the brain is regarded as being reliable but rigid and compulsive. It is most often associated with what some neuroscientists refer to the five F’s: fighting, feeding, fearing, fleeing, and fornicating. Defending territory, ideas, beliefs, and your girl or boyfriend, husband or wife from other suitors using aggression is a key function of this part of the brain. In other words, “might is right!” Sexual behavior is instinctive and responses are automatic and our emotions are more stimulated and negativity and anxiety are higher.
When our reptilian brain is in charge, which is a good part of the time for most of us, it is much harder to access the neural networks in our brains that are in charge of compassion, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence.
In the book, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, authors Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman tell us that the anterior cingulate is a special part of our brain that is involved with some of our deepest levels of humanity. For instance, our compassion, social awareness, and ability to recognize the feelings of others (emotional intelligence) is located here. This region of our brain is associated with our ability to decrease our propensity to express and react with anger and fear. It is where our deepest feelings of love reside. Newberg and Waldman are quick to point out that the neurons in this area are very vulnerable to being overridden by our reptilian brain which has been around much longer. In their view, we are much more likely to engage in fighting, aggression, anger and fear than we are in acts of love, compassion, generosity, and acceptance.
There are many ways out of our negativity brain bias. Some of them are as old as Indigenous culture itself: positive thinking, speech, actions, and feelings; mindfulness meditation; forget ruminating on the hurtful past and uncertain future; engage in contemplative prayer that is personally loving and extends love to all creatures and sentient being on the planet. Be careful of how you pray. According to Newberg and Waldman, prayer that centers on retribution and punishment from a fearful, critical, “I’m going to get you (and your little dog Toto too)” kind of God activates the neural circuits of fear and negativity in the reptilian brain and blocks access to one’s compassion, love, and acceptance. In this sense negativity and happiness are about one’s ability to control their mind.
So, how negative are tribal communities? I’ll leave that one for each of you to decide. I would suggest by asking yourself this same question on a personal level and then enlarge it to include your family, friends, and community members (and maybe the tea party too. Oops. Another negative from me).
In my work and research on Indigenous Peoples, mindfulness, neurodecolonization, and health, I have “argued” (another negative word) that tribal communities are very likely more unhappy than other communities due to their experiences with the various oppressions inherent in colonialism. I have used health statistics such as the amount of depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, and life expectancy as measures of negativity and happiness among Indigenous Peoples, which suggest that we have much higher rates of negativity than happiness. However, I truly do not know how unhappy or happy our communities are.
Several happiness and negativity surveys have been conducted throughout the world, but I cannot find any that tell us much about our tribal communities. In response to the absence of these data, I think it is time for each of our communities to conduct our own surveys on these two traits. With respect to happiness, I believe it is important to focus on what makes one happy, what is the level of our happiness, how often are we happy, and what can we do to sustain our happiness?
In closing, the Buddha once said “Let your love flow outward through the universe, to its height, its depth, its broad extent, a limitless love, without hatred or enmity. Then as you stand or walk, sit or lie down, as long as you are awake, strive for this with a one-pointed mind; Your life will bring heaven to earth (from Sutta Nipata)