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The Importance of Forgetfulness

Emergence theory studies the way that groups of individuals, by reacting to each other and the environment, can develop a collective intelligence that surpasses in both efficiency and flexibility anything that could be designed with a centralized design model.  The classic example is ant colonies. 


Ant colonies are not directed by the queen ant.  In fact, the queen is nothing more than a birthing machine as far as the hierarchy of the colony is concerned.  The colony has no leader whatsoever, and individual ants have a very simple set of rules that govern their activity.  Any given ant can take any of the roles at any time.  For this example, let’s simplify the activities of the colony to finding food, cleaning and building.  Ants leave a pheromone trail as they move, and the chemical composition of the trail communicates the function that they’re currently taking.  So any given ant can tell if the ants they run across are foraging, cleaning or building.  Similarly, the strength or weakness of the pheromones left communicate the experience that the ant is having.  So if a forager has found a food source, its trail will be strong, attracting other ants.  If a cleaner comes across a big mess, its trail will be strong, etc.  Similarly, if a given ant is walking around and comes across forager after forager after forager, that ant may change its role to builder.  Through these simple actions, an efficient system of balance is maintained.  Innumerable instances of trial and error combined with near instant feedback culminates in a flexible efficient system.  There’s no leader whose loss will result in chaos and each ant is free to react instantly to its immediate surroundings. 


Now consider the human mind.  Scientists are discovering that human neurons work in essentially the same way, except with one critical difference.  Imagine that the ants’ pheromone trail never dissipated, so that even after the food was all gone from a specific place or the mess was cleaned up, there would remain a strong trail leading to nothing.  Putting it another way, why does your computer have a screen saver?  It’s because without it, whatever image was left on the screen overnight would start to burn itself into the screen so that even when the computer was off, you could see the image.  The mind works the same way.  Over time, certain neural pathways become ‘burned in’ so that when the mind is presented with a particular stimulus, it will react by firing the same synapses as the last time and inducing the same result.  Over time, this creates efficiency, so that when the mind encounters a baseball bat, it knows how to swing it or when it hears a song, it knows how to sing it.  But not all of these pathways are optimized, or even healthy.  Sometimes, the mind can begin to strengthen the links that produce violence, or fear, or surrender in inappropriate circumstances.  Thich Nhat Hahn likes to point out the danger of thinking that through expression, you’re ‘getting the anger out of your system’.  In fact, he explains, what you’re doing is exercising your “anger muscles” by strengthening this neural pathway. 


Enter meditation and yoga.  Your yoga practice, particularly when combined or integrated with a meditation practice helps you to examine, test and even erase these channels, opening your mind to alternative reactions.  You can begin to literally reprogram your mind.  In class, we create stressful situations and practice getting calm.  We push up against our endurance and when we want to quit, we practice finding energy.  We challenge our ego and when it flares up, we practice acceptance.  These practices are valuable on the yoga mat.  They are infinitely more valuable off of it.


What if we could link the stimulus of a traffic jam with the response of calm instead of anger?  What if a homeless person triggered compassion instead of fear and revulsion?  What if time alone triggered sanctuary and renewal instead of fear and boredom? 


So how do you start?  Recognize the difference between your thoughts and your consciousness.  Recognize that strong emotions happen to you, they aren’t you.  They will arise, burn and pass.  Practice alternative reactions to familiar stimuli.  When you come around a bend and see brake lights, be aware of the frustration that rises.  Watch it rise, crest, and in the light of your awareness, recede.  Practice first in the controlled environment of your yoga mat.  Notice when you start to get tired, when you want to quit.  Watch how your mind behaves, and pay attention to the cycles.  Try not to get caught up in the story.  As you play with the edge of your equanimity on the mat, you naturally begin to reprogram your reactions off of it.


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