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Who's in Charge Anyway?

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In recent lectures and workshops I have heard much debate about how much control and free will we exercise over our choices and our lives. At the extreme are the advocates of The Secret, who believe that individuals have total freedom and can create whatever they want. This seems patently absurd to many of us, for we do not have that experience of unlimited freedom. The Secret's advocates would counter that we just don't apply ourselves. We don't spend enough time visualizing that new Porsche in the driveway. If we did, it would appear. Others, however, point out the inherent selfishness of this line of thought in a finite world. Unlike Secret advocates who believe in abundance, we may consider that the earth's resources are limited. Not everyone can have or drive a Porsche. Indeed, estimates made at MIT in the 1960s placed the limit to growth in a finite world as fresh water. That commodity disappears even before food.

I suggest it is an illusion that we control even our brains. We are largely unaware of our connectedness to others and our embeddedness in social networks in the modernized world. Indigenous people are more aware of these inter-relationships as the movie Avatar dramatized. The neuroscientist Nisbett showed that the brains of Japanese people in Japan and Americans in the USA actually work different. When showed movies of fish in underwater scenes, the Japanese noticed the background and the relationships of fish to each other and to background far more than the Americans who focused upon the biggest, fastest, or most colorful fish. The Americans could remember these fish with 100% recall; whereas the Japanese posted 30%. As Japanese lived in the USA, their brains slowly changed and their dominant mode of perception became more focused on large, colorful, or fast-moving objects in the foreground to the exclusion of the background. We are raised in the United States in such a way that our brains are not designed to see our connectedness with everyone else. We are designed to notice the biggest, fastest, or most colorful objects in our environment and to see them as individual entities and as parts of connected wholes.

I propose that our brains are neurons in a larger social brain. We are embedded in social networks with multiple, interlocking connections emerging from an environment which contextualizes us. In such a network, no one is in control. We can capture the illusion of control when we sense the direction in which the network is going and push in that direction ourselves. It can even seem as if we are leading when we do this at the edge of the network or at its boundary with other networks. Try going against the network's direction of movement and see what happens. It's like swimming against strong current. One isn't likely to go far. I believe we are controlled far more than we think by our relationships and the environment in which we find ourselves/

Stories are the electrical impulses of social neurotransmission. Through stories we connect with each other and maintain our connections. Some stories are more rigid than others. Some stories hold us in place more than others, which allow greater flexibility.

What about The Secret? How much can we influence our present and our future? A Lakota concept aids us here that of wo'onsila. This word sums up the pitiable state of having been thrown into a universe of large forces who are largely ignorant of us (and don't care so much anyway) and whose activities affect us in unpredictable ways that we can't control small, insignificant beings that we are. We start in wo'onsila and work from there.

When evaluating belief systems, we need to examine their impact on larger groups. I propose that we need a flexible story in which we can explore the possibilities of individual influence while recognizing the real constraints of network embeddedness. When we place too much power in the individual, then individuals who "fail" to achieve what they desire feel inferior. If we placed no influence in the individual, then excessive passivity would ensue. We need a flexible philosophy of accountability and response-ability, within the constraints imposed by our embeddedness. We are capable of responding. Sometimes our only possible response is to bear our suffering well. Sometimes we are permitted and have the lattitude to change our circumstances so as to reduce our suffering. We can only learn the degree to which change is possible by trying to change. When no change is possible, sometimes the only possibility is to enrol more people in supporting our change process. The larger our network, the more it can carry us away from situations that stifle us. The "failure" if there is any, in achieving our goals, lies in the smallness of our networks, and not in ourselves.

Our brains are designed to perpetuate the illusion of a continuous world when the world is shifting all the time. If we struggle to notice what we are trained to ignore, we can gain some insight into the control of reality question. This summer, Barbara and I were staying at a friend's house. We ran the same route each morning. On the third morning, we both simultaneously noticed that the slope had changed. The road to the reservoir was suddenly more steeply down going than it had been. We had changed decisions that morning about where to do our hanbleciya (vision quest). As we discussed this, we realized that we had shifted into another reality. In our earlier reality, the slope was less steep. Our decision had launched us into a different reality. In our new er reality, the road was more steep. We didn't know the significance of this. We could have made up stories and the temptations to do so were great, since this is what our brains do with facts that seem anomolous. In keeping with this version of quantum physics, whenever a choice is made, the universe divides. Each choice happens in one of the two parallel universe. Max Tegmark, an astrophysicist at MIT, has called the collection of all possible universes, the multiverse. What we can do, perhaps, is to align ourselves with the future we wish and to playfully wish we could be there. A Lakota elder told me this. He said to visualize the future as you wish it, and maybe you can get there. He didn't believe that we created our futures, but that many possible futures exist and that we can align ourselves with the one we wish to inhabit. That may or may not work, but it's our best chance.

Perhaps good futures are like good characters in the movies simple. When characters are simple, we can project our own complexity onto them. We can imbue them with our traits. If we keep our possible fitures sufficiently simple, imagining going there is easier.


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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)

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