Counterproductive instincts

In the last post, one outmoded survival instinct was noted: self-preservation that sometimes appears as ego sensitivity. A couple of years back, a very wise letter appeared in the New Yorker magazine in response to a previous issue’s article on A.I. (artificial intelligence).

A letter in the December 21 & 28, 2015 issue of the New Yorker (retyped in full):

In the Katchadourian piece, a scientist claims that A.I. [artificial intelligence] could resolve climate change, disease, and poverty in ways beyond human capacity. But these systemic problems are not only the result of a lack of intelligence or resources or logistics. There is plenty of food, money, and even plain old human intelligence devoted to confronting these problems. What we don’t have is the ability to overcome outmoded and counterproductive evolutionary survival urges: hoarding against famine becomes greed, self-protection becomes aggression, alertness to danger becomes xenophobic fear, the reproductive imperative for survival becomes overpopulation. Expecting A.I. to solve all of this for us is asking for it to outsmart us. The alternative is fostering human intelligence globally, allowing people to understand, acknowledge, and temper their behavior. Will that take five hundred years? Do we have that much time?

Paul Farrell, Cambridge, Mass.

The writer questions whether computing power can somehow supersede our own lack of understanding. We don’t know the answer, but we do know, and I think the letter-writer implies, that training in mindfulness can help us become aware of inappropriate reactions and can allow us to “temper our behavior”, perhaps not on a global scale, but at least on a personal and possibly community scale.

When the problem before us seems overwhelming, one way to proceed is to break it down into its component parts. Can we quickly foster human intelligence world-wide? No, but can we cultivate our own intelligence? Yes. I would argue that many people across the world are attempting to do just that through taking up a variety of meditative practices. Schools and prisons seem to be leading the way in group training and practice, and there are many opportunities through community centers, churches, etc. to be trained in basic mindfulness techniques. Excellent written and on-line resources are also available, many of them at no cost.

I offer this 6 minute video by Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence and a new book, with Richard J. Davidson, called Altered Traits [I haven’t read the new one]).

Dr. Goleman makes the excellent point that if a classroom full of children with learning difficulties can benefit from 10-minute mindfulness sessions two or three times a day, then the rest of us can, too. Of course, training our attention is not a panacea, but it is a good start. As with anything worth doing, the first step is the hardest one. I encourage you to begin a practice that suits you and is effective for you, and if you’ve already started one, keep on going. Do it for yourself and for the welfare of our planet.

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
This entry was posted in Causes and results, Compassion, General, Mindfulness. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Counterproductive instincts

  1. Anna Marino says:

    Excellent, thanks Lynn
    Spot on with your notes on counterproductive instincts – for me one of the most mind bending….is when they want to wage a war against violence to bring peace…our (collective world group think) is like a spinning top – round and round and never taking time to stop and be mindful about the incongruence of what we’re saying, doing, being… needless to say I’ve erred too …patience, patience and more patience….and more meditation.
    I’ve been an admirer of Daniel Goleman for a long time and use his works in my teaching programs. I hadn’t seen this particular video clip. What I really liked too was that he chunked meditation into 10min segments – do-able for even the busiest person. And really synergise on how multi-tasking can have negative impact in the long term, particularly if we’re not at least working it with mindfulness….hope I make sense.. Well done Lynn. I really enjoy your blog.

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