Thoughts on Duality

When I flick on the TV and watch the news, I am dumbstruck by the pain and violence we inflict on one another. I have often asked myself in the past, “Why? What is it in us that can be so cruel and destructive?” Upon reading Karen Armstrong’s excellent book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, I experienced a moment of insight that made me realise that we are all capable of cruelty and compassion.

According to evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists our primitive brains (the limbic system and hypothalamus in particular) rule what is jokingly called the Four Fs: fighting, fleeing, feeding and reproduction/mating. In order to survive a hostile world, we, in our distant past, had to feed our own egos. Karen Armstrong, religious historian and compassion activist, says that egotism is rooted in the ‘old brain’ and “. . .bequeathed to us by the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago. Wholly intent on personal survival . . . our reptilian ancestors were . . . interested only in status, power, control, territory, sex, personal gain and survival. Homo sapiens has inherited these neurological systems . . . and it is thanks to them that our species survived. The emotions they engender are strong, automatic, and ‘all about me’.”

Over time, human beings have, thankfully, also evolved a ‘new brain’ or neocortex that is home to our ability to reason and which enables us to reflect on the world and ourselves. We can, in other words, step back from our deep-seated, instinctive passions and practise compassion. In India, in the seventh century before Christ, the sages started to develop a technique called yoga, which was meant to systematically take the ego out of our thinking. When we no longer see the world through the filter of our own desires and fears, we open up not only our ability for compassion, but also an entirely different way of being in the world.

Examples of compassionate people and the impact of their work abound, and although their stories do not always make it to the news, their lives can still act as inspiration for developing our own compassion. Every day brings us a myriad of opportunities in which we can choose to engage either our ‘old’ or ‘new’ brain, and when we understand this inherent duality within our brain we can empower ourselves with choices that befit our dharma.


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