How We Turn Off the Light



                 If I’m such a spiritual giant, why do I get so worked up over bullshit?


We know that love can build a beautiful world. We know that our own fear and anger can only destroy it. Let’s take a look at one theory of the brain, and how it relates to this dilemma.

Was it Karma or did my parents do it?

Neither. We did it to ourselves when we programmed our Reptile Brain. The Reptile Brain crowns the spinal column like a knob in the middle of our heads. This is the involuntary brain that keeps our hearts pumping, that keeps us breathing. It is the seat of knee-jerk responses like flight or fright. The Reptile Brain is the repository of all our basic instincts. It is programmed by what we make of our very early childhood experiences. It sends electronic impulses to other parts of the brain in response to stimulation from what is outside of us, and in response to what is going on inside of us. These impulses carry no meaning. They are just energy. The patterns we stuff into our own little Reptile Brains are set for life. What other parts of the brain make of these patterns can change.

triune brain
Image from


Pink clouds and raging bulls

The energy of impulses from the reptile brain change as they travel through higher portions of our gray matter. The first area the impulses hit is the Mammal Brain, the seat of emotions. During the first year of our lives, before we develop language, the reptilian impulses register as feelings. Sucking on a nipple, whether of flesh or soft rubber, the gush of warm milk, feels good. That hot nasty thing in our diapers feels bad.

The sweet embrace of our mother, the loving cooing of our daddy feels good. When mommy abandons us to be with daddy, it feels bad. This little story is the basis of Freudian Theory. Oedipus wants his mommy and he wants to kill daddy. Electra wants daddy and she wants to kill mommy. Sweet romance.

Before we develop language, none of this has a story yet. We are programming ourselves with basic instincts, storing energy patterns into the Reptile Brain in response to their effect on our middle brain, the Mammal Brain, also called the limbic system, which scientists have discovered is located in the cerebellum. The field of human development calls this “early patterning.” We develop patterns of behavior that, in later life, will serve us well and drive us mad. Good instincts gone awry.

As we grow toward language, we learn how to exercise our will. Crying, we learn, will tear mommy from daddy’s embrace, bringing her to us to change our diapers or stuff a nipple into our mouth. Making bright eyes and gurgling sounds makes daddy coo and smile at us. We learn the power of a smile. We learn the power of a frown. We learn how to work it.

The Reptile Brain is territorial. It is the seat of the will to power. The Mammal Brain changes these primal instincts into basic instincts. These instincts are good, but they go awry. This is the basis of Country Music, The Blues, and all of their popular derivatives.

The shit hits the fan

When we develop language, the shit hits the fan. We begin to make up stories about the things that cause little electric currents to jump from the Reptile Brain into the Mammal Brain. When the language centers of the higher brain come on line, we begin to make up the story of reality. We are so convinced that our story of reality is true, that we are willing to die for it. All forms of life share this illusion.

In the Triune Brain scheme, this higher brain is called the Human Brain. The part of the Human Brain that makes up stories about reality is located in the pre-frontal cortex. To be fair to our beloved pets, they also have a pre-frontal cortex, but ours is 40% larger. This is why humans can invent complex things like politics and economics, but a dog can find a bone n a forest and be perfectly happy.

Like evolutionary theory, which has life moving from the swamp to crawling snakes to mammals on all fours and eventually an erect form, Homo Sapiens, the human brain has evolved to an erect state.

The erectile brain and the making of the new world

Before the modern world happened, the culture we were born into controlled the stories we made up about reality. People felt safe with a strong leader and a set of proscribed rituals that everybody practiced.. The theory of law came into being, and small tribes came together to form larger collective states. Like dogs, we were happy and secure when we were obedient to the laws of our culture.

genghis_khan_and_the_making_of_the_modern_world_by_jack_weatherfordThen things changed. I blame Genghis Khan. His will to power drove him to conquer much of the known world. He brought the best ideas of each culture into each new territory that his hoard swept into. Things got mixed up, and a new form of human mind evolved. Historians call it “the enlightenment.” The enlightenment brought about ideas of freedom that led to the greatest social experiment in history, The United States of America. Aamerican dieals of freemdom have spread to the rest of the world. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? As the Zen Master.

Erectile brain dysfunction

And, so we come back to the question, “If I am such a spiritual giant, why do I get so worked up over bullshit?”

A conservative might point to a lack of discipline. A liberal might point to an over-developed sense of constraint. A politician will analyze your zip code and credit card bills and tell you “the other” is to blame. Most spiritual gurus say it’s in the stories we make up about things.

Chances are you are intelligent, you have a cultured mind, and because of this you are aware that the same bullshit pops up over and over again.

So what is it, really? It’s quite simple. Things bother us deeply when we don’t create a space between the primal instincts of the Reptile Brain, the emotional reactions of the Mammal Brain, and the stories we make up in the Human Brain. This lack of space is called “habit.”

Doing the Jerk

We cannot change the knee-jerk instincts programmed into our Reptile Brain. When we react to them without thinking, we act like a jerk. That’s where the term comes from. We jerk each other around, but in our own minds, we are innocent, meaning we can be unconscious when we truly feel “I’m innocent. You’re the jerk.” This is the wonderful thing about drugs like alcohol, cocaine, opioids. We can remain unconscious but the feel-good neurotransmitters flow, so we act with impunity and feel great – until the hangover sets in, the remorse, the self-loathing. We can make the decision to stop using drugs and alcohol, but after a year or two we realize, oh dang, the same bullshit keeps coming up over and over again. This is because we cannot change the primal instincts we stored in the Reptile Brain before we were old enough to use the Human Brain.

The only thing we can do is to become aware of the causes and conditions that live in that bump on top of our spines, how they leap into the higher parts of our brain, the stories we make up in response. We can change our habitual responses.

Space, the final frontier

In 1974, a group of neuroscientists met with a group of Tibetan monks in Boulder, Colorado. The monks asked the brain guys what they would most like to develop in their field. The reply was, “We’d like to help people take four seconds between stimulus and response.” This is the space between the Reptile Brain and the rest of it that is required to change our habits. This is the space required to become a happy person.

My mother knew that. She taught us to count to ten when we were angry. Neuroscientists got it down to four. They were smart guys. While it is true, that pausing when agitated can prevent World War III, we still have the old problem of pain, terror, and uncertainty that wells up almost daily as we have our average of 66,000 thoughts a day. If you think you’re over it, drive out to get groceries during rush hour. Fall in love. Check your bank account. The Days of Our Lives, a soap opera, has been showing weekly since 1965.

The way out is the way in

The way out is through daily practice. The brain will revert to it’s original state if we don’t tune it up on a regular basis. The practice of creating space in the brain has many names. Those who were born into or who adopted religious cultures call it prayer. Eastern cultures and the new age call it meditation. Cultures that predate the common era call it contemplation. Athletes call if focus. Atheists and agnostics sometimes think of it as self-hypnosis. By any name, it is Love. Turkish poet Yunnis Emmri wrote, “Love, you have taken me away from me.”

                                       The way out is the way in. May you find it now.


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