Mindfulness and Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer

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Much of our suffering and psychological problems we face are due to the fact that we are using ancient cognitive machinery to deal with the complexities of the modern world. Humans evolved though a process called natural selection in which genes that were best suited for their respective environments were passed on to the next generation. As Robert Wright notes in his book Why Buddhism is True, natural selection is not concerned about whether we evolved to be free from pain or to see reality objectively. Rather, its central objective is to pass on genes which are essential to an organism’s survival through reproduction. 

Humans have shifted from living in relatively small hunter-gatherer tribes to urban environments and large cities. Consequently, many of our predispositions that were previously useful in the past are now the cause of needless anxiety, suffering and discontent. Let’s look at some examples to prove this point.

Anticipatory fears:  As the Stoic philosopher Seneca stated, “We often suffer more in our imagination than in reality.”  Why is it that people fear things that they have not yet experienced?  For instance, some people have a fear of flying without even stepping foot on a plane.  Others dread experiencing traumatic events based on programs they watched on TV.

Why is this the case?

Our fight or flight response system that we inhibit was incredibly useful when humans were living in natural environments. Imagine living in a hunter-gatherer society and hearing the sound of movement in the trees. We anticipate a threat even though this may or may not have been a predator. However, in the one case that it was, those who quickly escaped had a better chance at long-term survival than those who did not.

Our proclivity towards short term pleasure: Many of us continually crave and indulge on short-term pleasure which we know are only temporary and will soon pass. Take for instance, the craving to eat a whole box of chocolates. Once we start eating it may take incredible will power to stop. However, we know that after of our feast is over, we will likely feel terrible – not to mention the high caloric intake and long-term effects of this indulgence.

The temporal nature of pleasure makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If pleasure lasted forever, we wouldn’t have the drive for reproduction and to fulfill our most basic needs. We would cease to desire more food after we finish a meal because we wouldn’t have the signal of hunger telling us that we need more food.

Our aversion towards public speaking:  According to studies, almost 30% of Americans claim they are either ‘afraid or very afraid of public speaking.’ The fear of public speaking can be traced to our distant ancestors. Maintaining group solidarity and cohesion was crucial to fighting off large predators. Being ostracized from the group would lead someone to face incredible hardship, a potential early death. This links to our loathing towards public speaking, and our aversion to be judged and rejected by our peers.

Mindfulness

So how can we cut through these delusions and regain control over our immediate desires and impulses? Mindfulness can provide us with some direction.

Mindfulness is quite simply ‘cultivating awareness’ to the contents of your consciousness in a clear and non-judgemental way. It trains us to cultivate attention and be able to shift our awareness to the present moment.  The hectic nature of our day to day lives barely gives us time to think and reflect. Consequently, as mindfulness practitioner Jon Kabat Zinnn notes in his book Falling Awake,

“We so easily default to an automatic pilot mode – descending into the familiar ruts in our thinking and our emotional life, getting caught from agenda item to agenda item, and becoming more and more addicted to all the ways we have to distract ourselves through our devices and our so-called ‘infinite-connectivity’ that we lose sight of what is right in front of us and of what is called for now”

This next section of the blog will explore how mindfulness and Eastern philosophy can serve as an antidote to our needless suffering. These practices can help us step off the so-called ‘hedonic treadmill’ and enable us to cultivate awareness so we aren’t constantly driven to ‘keep up with the Jonses’.

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