being human

Memes

PART 1

Memes……have you heard of them?
There is a whole field of Memetics (http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/memes.html) that studies memes and it is vast and complex.
By their definition they are something that is acting upon and within us all the time….. and yet I also find them elusive.

Here is some history and definition (drawn for the work of Susan Blackmore and other sources)

The term meme (it’s pronounced like dream or cream) was coined by Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As examples of memes he suggested “musical tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches”.

Memes are habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information that is copied from person to person. Memes, like genes, are replicators. That is, they are information that is copied with variation and selection. Because only some of the variants survive, memes (and hence human cultures) evolve. Memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again.

The word “meme” has recently been included in the Oxford English Dictionary where it is defined as follows “meme (mi:m), n. Biol. (shortened from mimeme … that which is imitated, after GENE n.) “An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation”.

According to memetics, our minds and cultures are designed by natural selection (the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring) acting on memes, just as organisms are designed by natural selection acting on genes. A central question for memetics is therefore ‘why has this meme survived?’. Some succeed because they are genuinely useful to us, while others use a variety of tricks to get themselves copied. From the point of view of the “selfish memes” all that matters is replication, regardless of the effect on either us or our genes.

Some memes are almost entirely exploitative, or viral, in nature, including chain letters and e-mail viruses. These consist of a “copy-me” instruction backed up with threats and promises. Religions have a similar structure and this is why Dawkins refers to them as ‘viruses of the mind’. Many organized religions threaten hell and damnation, promise heaven or salvation, and insist that their followers pass on their beliefs to others. This ensures the survival of the memeplex. Other viral memes include alternative therapies that don’t work, and new age fads and cults. Relatively harmless memes include children’s games, urban legends and popular songs, all of which can spread like infections.

At the other end of the spectrum memes survive because of their value to us. The most valuable of memeplexes include all of the arts and sports, transport and communications systems, political and monetary systems, literature and science.

Memetics has been used to provide new explanations of human evolution, including theories of altruism, the origins of language and consciousness, and the evolution of the large human brain. The Internet can be seen as a vast realm of memes, growing rapidly by the process of memetic evolution and not under human control.

(All of this taken into consideration….the field of memetics is still a new science, with many critics, and many difficulties to be resolved.)

PART 2

The curiosity for me is exploring where perhaps a meme ends and ‘I’ begin (or vice versa). It all gets a bit slippery and I am not sure there is ever an ‘I’ that simply stands by itself as each of us is a composite of experiences, influences and ideas (or memes).
But I believe that, with practice, we can begin to notice the influence of ideas, memes, conditioning and environment upon us. From there perhaps we can step back just enough to broaden perspective and find new choices available to each of us.

All of this leads me to continually explore the ways in which this dictates our behaviors, memories and stories as an individual but also as a society/community. Basically, the things that shape who we are. And simultaneously I am ever fascinated with this ability to expand our awareness, perspectives, ‘choices’ and possibilities.

Truly, all of this feels like a lifelong exploration to me as there seems to always be more layers of the self. Just as science continues to discover new dimensions and possibilities about our universe (and beyond)………..so it is with the inner universe of our mind & body complex. Like the universe I feel we are infinite and always expanding/contracting.
I think what makes it more tricky is that unlike the universe we are not unbiased or neutral. We have constructed our world with distinct parameters and social systems to ‘make sense’ and create ”order’ from what is infinite within and around us. These systems dictate how we measure ourselves, view the world and the concepts by which we live. And since this world is also filled with so much human diversity…. these measurements, views and concepts can both be helpful and harmful.

So much of what I explore in myself and through my life is how to simply reveal more layers (that are equal ‘truth’) in and around me. I am not content with looking through the same glasses my whole life with lenses (conditioning) that perhaps I know limit my vision. Who would want to keep wearing those glasses knowing it diminishes their sight?
All of the practice and ‘exercises’ help me to switch out the lenses and keep finding the ways my vision can grow and adjust.
(I remember hearing about a young friend who they didn’t know needed glasses. When he wore his new glasses for the first time he was talking about things he was ‘seeing’ that he had not been able to see before in his everyday environment. I am feeling a metaphor here.)

I hear people invoke the phrase ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’. If your sight seems perfectly acceptable by standards and it isn’t giving you obvious headaches……why change the lenses? Besides, it’s a hassle….right?
In fact, I had someone recently read my post about ‘Choice’ and say it sounded amazing but it is ‘asking a lot of people’ and that what I am suggesting is probably ‘too difficult’ for most.

I understand all of that.
Again, for me, there is truly no ‘right or wrong’ way of living or seeing the world (Although we each can have our own opinions). None of what I suggest is about ‘shoulds’ or ‘right’…..it is simply offering possibilities through awareness and curiosity. It is offering tools for how we might continue to meet (and perhaps adapt) to this ever evolving world of people, diversity and complexity.  And to also invite new insight about ourselves previously ‘hidden’.
That is where it gets interesting for me. Not in maintaining how I see myself and the world…..but in allowing it to open and evolve.

That is when I feel potential unfolding.

Thanks for reading……….

(and if you are ever wondering why I put quotation marks around so many words it is because those words feel quite subjective and more like concepts than definitives. What I suggest is more exploration than ‘answer’ or definitions.)

being human

History~memory~choice -Part 1

I believe we can find our personal empowerment in choice. Over time and/or through conditioning we sometimes narrow our perspective of ourselves and life situations, limiting our ability to see the myriad of choices in any given moment. Why not widen our scope (through awareness and curiosity) and discover the multitude of options around us for how we might feel, perceive, think and act in relation to situations and people.

I realize keeping our choices limited might feel easier at times. (Some people have expressed to me that having more options can feel overwhelming and that keeping it ‘small’ brings a sense of safety or control.) But I am only suggesting you become aware of the possibilities…….ultimately you don’t have to choose to feel or act differently. Even when we continue to choose what is familiar, the practice of expanding our awareness of other possibilities is a profound tool in our complex world as humans.

I imagine this can all sound a bit vague……so I will try to offer some examples.

Here is a possible scenario…….
Let’s say I am having a disagreement with a friend and I walk away feeling committed to the perception that they are wrong and I am right. I perceive the situation in black or white terms. (I can certainly stay in this perception and whatever happens will happen.) And……I can also begin to question elements of the situation without placing blame or sense of right & wrong. If I allow myself to soften I can begin to see more options of perspective and viewpoint that lead me into a a wider circle of possibility. These new possibilities of thinking can help shift me out of my old conditioning and limited perspective.
Again, when I let go of my attachment to the familiar ‘I am right’ then suddenly anything is possible as far as my ability to choose a new reaction, response or even become more compassionate.
(I know that I certainly feel more vulnerable when I let go of attachment and open up to other perspectives…..but ultimately I grow and in that there is greater freedom.)

When I find myself in any situation like this I often walk away and then begin to ask myself questions as if I were a neutral bystander. I ask gentle and probing questions into my behavior and also look to uncover as many ideas (without knowing which might be more valid than another) about the other persons behavior. The key for me is always just being curious but not attached to an ‘answer’ because in the alchemy of human interactions I have found there is rarely a single answer or ‘reason’. (And I know that when I describe it here it sounds so neat and tidy….but believe me…..sometimes my process might be a little messy as I sort through my emotions & protective ego along the way.)

This method of ‘black or white’ thinking (‘one or another’ as the only possibilities) is a prevalent form of human assessment. I think we take comfort in having an answer as opposed to seeing the many possibilities and not really knowing what might be ‘true’.
And yes, sometimes we have past experience that informs us and this is a fundamental way in which we learn. (I touched the hot toaster, I burnt my finger and now I know not to touch it again.) We come to know our world through this process and it often works quite well. But there is a whole realm of non-black or white (or hot/cold) situations…… remembering this can be liberating.
When we limit ourselves to only seeing things as ‘it is this way or it is that way’ or ‘they are this or they are that’….how does that truly serve us, others or the world?

Another example of limited perception is how we might feel about something that has happened in the past. We often unknowingly ‘assign’ a particular emotion to an event and perhaps don’t take the time to notice there might be a multitude of other possible emotions that are also true. At any point we have the power to choose how we feel and perceive. Even if the predominant emotion is ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ they are most likely accompanied by other feelings all interconnected. It is unlikely to have any of these emotions exist in a vortex on their own.
(All emotions have overtones of the others and we are able to find variation in our emotions when we change from thinking in singular and narrow terms alone…happy, sad, anger, fear).
When we open ourselves to a greater range of possibilities, we might discover new information about our relationship with an event and gradually begin to integrate what we discover, therefore shifting how we label and relate to it.

Any time we simply react or follow our habitual emotional response to a situation or memory, we minimize our personal potential because we forfeit choice.
Each of us is amazingly complex and has a continuous system of thoughts and feelings flowing through us. Due to conditioning we might end up having the same perspective, thoughts and feelings time after time.
A great analogy might be comparing this constant stream of thoughts to something like a river.

In this sense we are immersed in a river constantly (the ‘river’ being these thoughts/feelings) and you see the same rocks (perceptions) over and over again along the banks of this river. You might also attempt to cling to the same branch at a certain point. But through practice (opening our focus and letting go of attachment to ‘right or wrong’) we may begin to see the sky, trees, colors and even the horizon. Why not open our personal lens and practice taking in all that is possible? Why not allow a little bit of surrender while in that river of thoughts and emotions and see where it takes you? You can always return to the safety of the familiar rocks or branch…… but what if you choose to expand the landscape of possibility?  What if you could also perceive other thoughts, feelings and perspectives in the landscape beyond the familiar?