The Yoga Place Blog

Raising Global Consciousness

What are you taking for granted today that you would only realise that you really value if you lost it?

What are you taking for granted today that you would only realise that you really value if you lost it?

Anyone who has lost an important relationship, or part of their lives that gives them meaning. knows the effect can be devastating.

Why is it that we often don’t appreciate how important something is to us until we loose it?

Are we condemned to have to loose things in order to value them or are there things we can do prevent it?

I will explain how this phenomenon of “taking for granted of what is important to us in the long term” is a natural consequence of the way we and our brains evolved.

This raises the question - if this is true then how was it that our long term relationships survived this “taking for granted condition” in the past? What has changed to increase the rate of relationship breakdown?

One answer is that the social structure and our day to day behaviours in these social structures generated the reminders and the behaviours required to nourish our long term sources of meaning and important relationships. Social cohesion was built into the fabric of society by the way we lived and related on a day to day basis. However, the pressures of modernity, globalisation and rapid change are rapidly breaking down the “institutionalised” ways of living that provided this structure and support. This is leading to an unprecedented rate of relationship breakdowns, a sense of loss of meaning in life and depression.

All is not lost. If we understand the underlying processes we can build in practices and rituals to our lives that allow us to refocus and reconnect to the value and gratitude we have for what gives us meaning, connection and support in our lives. One way to do this is to integrate rituals and practices into your daily yoga practice that do this.

I will address the issue of practice and rituals later. Let us first understand why we have this evolutionary tendency to take what we value for granted - to do this we need to understand the underlying neuroscience and neurobiology of our bodies and how this has been structured by our evolutionary past.
Our short term focused and survival orientated brain automatically leads us to take long term stable issues in our life for granted

It is easy and natural to start taking things for granted - your conscious awareness operates with limited bandwidth. This means that it can only focus on a few things at a time. You can think of your conscious awareness as a small stage that only has space for a limited number of actors at any one time. So it has to make choices about what to be aware of, and focus on, at any moment in time.

So what does your mind naturally focus on and why? Which actors are brought or kept on stage and which are booted off?

The primary role of your brain is to keep you alive. In order to do this it needs to be constantly on the alert for emerging threats and opportunities. If something in your environment becomes permanent and stops changing is is classified as a non emergent threat or opportunity and you stop becoming aware of it. It is removed from the stage of awareness to free up space to focus on what is novel and changing.

So evolution has designed us to have a mind has focuses us on the short term and the novel. There are no inbuilt systems for focusing on the long term.

A second thing that occurs is what I call the unconscious learning effect. About 95-97 % of what occurs in our minds and bodies occurs without is being consciously aware of it. This unconscious autopilot frees up our conscious awareness to learn new things.

When you encounter or learn something new the higher parts of your brain and our conscious awareness are engaged as new neural connections are formed. As you repeat patterns of behaviour the neural connections related to the behaviour become stronger and more permanent. This is brain plasticity in action. Neurons that fire together wire together. When the neural pathways reach a certain level of hard wiredness or permanence you become capable of performing the new action without the assistance of conscious awareness. The new learning becomes an unconscious habit.

Historically our social conditions and the way we lived and related to each other generated the behaviours and relationships that compensated for our“short term”, novelty orientated brain. The social intelligence was held in the structure of society. The rapid changes to our social structure are breaking down the very behaviours and relationships required to feed and nourish our relationships and what is important to us in the long term.

If the systems for maintaining long relationships are not hardwired into the brain where are they? The answer is that they are located in the network of our social relationships and our behaviours. They are held in the activities that occur between us which in turn are influenced by our culture and values.

We are profoundly social animals. The role and importance that our relationships and social network plays in our lives is only now being understood by the cutting edge of modern scientific researchers. So while it is true at one level that we are "individuals", the important point is that this “individuality” sits "on top off", and is influenced and supported by, our relationships. Our relationships provide the stable foundation that supports or limits our capacity to express ourselves as individuals.

As I have already explained, is precisely because our key relationships are stable that they get kicked off our limited stage of awareness. Because they are stable they loose the novelty status that would grant then the role of important actor on the limited stage of our awareness. In our hunter gather past this wouldn't have been an issue. People lived in small social groups and spent a large amount of time in their social networks doing social grooming acts. This is not the world that we live in. The social environment and culture that created the behaviours and time required to nourish and maintain our key relationships is being destroyed. This is one of the key reasons we are seeing so much relationship breakdown, a sense of loss of meaning and depression.

The changes and pressures of modernity are making it increasingly difficult to do what is necessary to maintain and support our important relationships. A recent study from the UK revealed that parents are spending only 49 minutes a day with their children. Two income families, the loss of work free weekends, new technology and the like are creating isolation. In our new online world where we are "always on and always connected" we are paradoxically becoming more disconnected and isolated from the key relationships that support and nourish us. We are running the risk of destroying our key support base for the allure of the benefits of a larger social network, novelty and instant gratification.

I am not against the new social networking tools or the online world. They are tools that offer humanity the chance to develop the large scale networks that are required to deal with the uncertain and increasingly unstable globally interconnected world that we now live in. And they allow us to maintain connections that would be difficult without them.

Every sword however has two sides. The more powerful a tool is the more power it has to do good and to do damage. The key is learning how to use tools skilfully to maximise the good and minimise the damage.

If we want to maintain strong relationships we need to understand the difference between strong bonds and weak bonds and what feeds and starves them. Strong bonds build strong relationships that deliver strong support. To build and maintain strong bonds we have to invest a relatively large amount of time and specific activities such as touch and sex (in adults). These investments are so large that we only have time to build and maintain a few at any given time. Weak bonds - like the internet - allow us to maintain large networks without the same requirements of time and physical contact required for strong bonds. While they connect us to the potential to come into contact with greater opportunities they offer less support. Our investment in weak bonds also eats into time we have available for our strong relationships.

In Yoga philosophy the water element is the element of cohesion that binds things together. The Wind element which connects the heart, hands and skin also connects us emotionally to the larger world. The two hormones that control water flow in our bodies are oxytocin and vasopressin. They are also the two hormones associated with pair bonding, trust and the promotion of social cohesion and are released in activities like sex and breast feeding.

It should be no surprise then that the strongest relationship bonds require sex (water element) and touch (wind element).

We also have mirror neurons or empathy neurons in our brains. They allow us to feel what is going on in another person, to mirror their state and to feel empathy and connection. The strength of this empathy pathway is to a large part determined by our own personal capacity to be aware of our own internal mental, emotional and physical states. And this is why a yoga practice that develops these skills enhances our capacity for empathy and relationship with others. I shall discuss how this works in greater depth in another post. And although video and audio conferencing can help activate some of these mirror neurons they work best when we are face to face.

In a future post I will explain how we build practices and rituals into our yoga practice that allow us to remember and appreciate the importance of our relationships, and generates the internal emotional states of love and gratitude that support them.