Excerpt from Chapter 1, Section 2: Empires of the Mind - Chessboards in the Making
and from Section 3: Dawn of an Idea - Elements Emerge
Rising out of the deluge of information that bombards all life, empires begin
to emerge like the first signs of life that bubbled from a primordial sea. Indeed
what really created empires in the first place may have been life’s primal need to
stabilize, control and eventually make sense of all that’s surrounds it.
The signs of such empires abound. The child who failed to learn how to share
toys, and who as a result, does not play well with others. Teenagers deciding who
can or cannot join their gang. Aspiring actors, singers, or musicians with eyes on
the fame and attention they crave. Once-affable individuals whose promotions go
to their heads. CEOs willing to embark on hostile takeovers, keen to leave their
‘Kilroy mark’ on the corporate world. Ambitious politicians who dream of remaking
the world in his or her ideological image. The religious zealot intent on
saving your soul for the higher glory of God…
Such is the tenacious current – flowing through the hearts and minds of we
humans – that seeks to possess, yearns to control or hopes to realize something
more than what we now have or who we now are. And, living in the crowded societies
most of us do, our aspirations easily collide with those held by others, leading
to heated competition and conflict, as we seek to assert our will and defend our
No less is seen in our great-ape cousins. It is reflected in their gamesmanship
to outwit a rival for a piece of fruit, the aggressive assertion of their social status
within the troupe, tumbles taken off the pecking order ladder, alliance-building
aimed at consolation and sometimes revenge. It is all there. And yet so many of us
choose to pretend otherwise. Inbuilt biological programs such as these have little,
if anything, to do with us, or so we like to think. And often. After all, they are but
smelly, brutish apes, while we are so sweetly perfumed and polite.
But are we really that far removed? We grip the TV remote as if a precious
fruit-bearing branch torn from a tree. And as they will at times brandish sticks to
defend themselves, we brandish baseball bats and swords, or carbines and cannons.
They hoot when excited. We hoot and holler while watching our NFL, NBA or
NHL team make an amazing play on huge flat screens. They run around wildly on
the jungle floor. We dance wildly about in our undies to the strains of The Who or
The Stones or Abba or whoever in the safety of our ‘living rooms’.
The difference is our bigger and brighter brains have had the luxury of developing
more complex expressions of our common impulses. And, as our history has
amply shown, the results haven’t always been good. Sure we’re good at building
and dropping bombs. But when it comes to building paradise or dropping violent
habits, we have a lot more difficulty.
That challenge belies a very nasty past. We’re all children of creatures who
survived because of their ability to consume other creatures. And our civilization is
the child of ancestors who set out to seize, conquer and sometimes enslave others.
Only the technological comfort of our current era makes it easy for us to minimize
the unrelenting tenacity it took for life to move beyond its original swamp.
Even those who believe they haven’t an imperious bone in their body are no less
afflicted. What of one’s decision to fight for peace… or our decisions to go to church,
or support democracy, or respect others? All rely on an assertion of an inner authority
over one’s personal realm of values, ideas and beliefs.
Indeed, when we are constrained from pursuing what we want and/or dream
about, we lose much of what inspires us.
So why does it matter? It matters because we live in a world filled with billions
of souls who each carry this very same mental inclination. And if empires of old be
any guide, things might not end well for us in this regard in the coming years. So
much will likely depend on how we each come to use the power each of us holds
within our lives.
Can modern humans, ‘blessed’ as we are with expanding technology and
choice, move beyond the constraints of our primal impulse past? Can we figure out
a way to carve out a clearing in our own mental jungle without it being at the expense
or well-being of others as well?
As we alluded to earlier, unraveling the tangle of vines is no simple proposition
for it depends on each of us cultivating an understanding about the complexity
that gave rise to the human mind, and how we manage the limitations that brought
us to where we are now.
Dawn of an Idea – Elements Emerge
Over 2,500 years ago, an Indian crown prince named Siddhartha Gautama
Shakyamuni, who became known as the Buddha, enunciated the Four Noble
Truths. At their core was an insight into human suffering and its alleviation.
Little has changed since. Life remains an encounter with suffering, And, like
the Buddha then, today’s mental health professionals are still trying to understand
and lessen, if not resolve, its impact.
Take Hifzija Bajramovic [pronounced: Hif-ZEE-ah Buy-ra-mo-vich] for example.
His thirty plus year career as a psychiatrist at the Ottawa Hospital has been an
ongoing quest to understand the nature of human suffering. Among his varied
clients were many coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – some
deeply affected by the war in Bosnia, others referred to him for relief by Canada’s
National Defence Medical Centre.
It was during the course of his work with PTSD patients that he came to wonder
why some people succumbed to this affliction under stress, while others did
not. More puzzling yet was how some even seemed to gain strength from extreme
adversity. (Shades of “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”? ... as German
philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote – his variant on the ‘school of hard knocks’.)
Was it solely something in the personal history of patients that made them
less or more susceptible to the lingering effects of trauma, Bajramovic wondered.
Or was their differing resilience the byproduct of something else?
Based on years of observation, Bajramovic began to suspect that those more
resilient to PTSD were viewing and interpreting their reality through a particular
emotional and/or cognitive ‘lens’. He noticed how their habitual use and familiarity
with such ‘lenses’ gradually turned these ‘lenses’ into a kind of psychological
default setting for interacting with the world. Some were habitually angry; others
more appeasing; yet others defeated.
He observed how the particular ‘lenses’ people favored also affected how they
defined themselves personally. He linked this with the phenomenon that victimizers
had themselves so often been victims in their past. And he eventually concluded
that the victimizer and the ensuing suffering were both embedded in a
common, intimately interconnected system. This was just like the body surfing
experience he mentioned in his Introduction...
An intimately interconnected system! Hence a process, not the person, was
the real victimizer! A process, which organizes the interplay between victim and
victimizer where the roles are easily interchangeable! The process was the key!
If this was so, and since processes generally unfold in a predictable fashion,
Bajramovic set himself the task of carefully unraveling the underlying nature of this
process. Over the years, Bajramovic came to see how people tended to use one of
three styles of behavior not only when they interacted with others, but which also
carried over to the way they saw and related to themselves. In this regard they were
inclined to either: fight, appease or assume a mental posture denoting their defeat.
This made eminent sense since behavioral patterns like these were not only
long known from animal behavior research in the field of ethology, but they were
fully consistent with the ‘bio-psycho-social’ model that was a mainstay of both his
training and day-to-day practice. In a nutshell, the bio-psycho-social model recognizes
how, over the course of evolution, our biological inheritance has continued to
play a significant role in both defining and shaping many of our human behaviors.
The model first began to make its way into clinical psychiatry in the early 1980s.