Conscious vs. Unconscious

This is a post in my project series, tentatively titled “Overlapping Magisteria” – which is a project to bring together old spiritual wisdom about how to live as human beings, with current scientific understandings.

On July 18th, an unarmed black man who was a caretaker for an autistic patient was shot while he was lying down, with his hands up. The officer who shot him, when asked why, said “I don’t know.” And the truth is, likely, he actually had no idea.

The main narrative of the simple, proven fact that being black means you are more likely to be shot by police than if you’re white, is that there there is conscious bias in the police force towards people who are black. I don’t doubt that this is the case – it clearly plays out in higher rates of traffic stops, for example. But what’s also important is a different narrative – that biases that we cannot consciously control play a large role in these incidents, and in the ways police interact with people of color.

I’m going to take a little detour, then circle back, I promise.

In many spiritual traditions, there are three important ingredients to live a life that is holy. I’m using holy as a catch all. If you were a Buddhist, you’d say something like “free of suffering.” If you were a Christian, you might say, “right with God.” Whatever the optimal life a faith tradition imagines, fit that into the “holy” word.  Those three ingredients are: ethical behavior, spiritual practice, and a belief structure that holds it together. For some traditions (like Buddhism) that belief structure is less important than for others.

I want to focus on the first two: ethical behavior and spiritual practice. They are very different, of course. Each tradition has an ethical framework (which are, unsurprisingly, astonishingly similar.) You know the drill, do unto others, etc. And of course, the spiritual practices differ, but in the main, they are designed to quiet the mind and connect with the Divine, however one conceptualizes it. And these two, although quite different, are actually inseparable, because it is the spiritual practice that makes it possible for us to follow the ethical framework. And why is this so? Science knows the answer.

As I’ve outlined before, and again (and will again and again, I’m sure,) our brains are amazingly designed to keep us alive. A good chunk of it spends pretty much all of it’s time figuring out whether or not we’re safe. It does it without our conscious control. It’s quite good at it, I mean, really, really good at it. So good at it, that we actually need help not to use that part of our brains. And the spiritual practices are one form of that help.

So back to the shooting, and the officer who didn’t know why he shot the man lying on the ground: there is some very interesting work going on about the neuroscience of prejudice. Basically, our brains, because they are hard wired to figure out what’s safe and what’s not, makes super-fast (faster than we can consciously control) decisions about who is “us” and who is “them” – labeling “them” as dangerous. Add a gun, and you get the picture.

So who is responsible then? Is the officer off the hook because his Amygdala shot the man on the ground, not his conscious brain? No. But he is not solely to blame. My point is that we cannot really find the right solution to this problem without addressing the full spectrum of the causes, and one of them is unconscious bias. If police are going to continue being armed, without some sort of mindfulness training (and some anti-racism training, too, so that they understand how unconscious bias works,) unconscious bias + gun = more black people dying.

Of course, disarming them would be even better.



This Present Moment

I was folding laundry this morning, a task I generally don’t like, but try to use as a way to stay present. But my monkey mind was doing its normal thing. I was perseverating about the election season (actually, freaking out is more accurate,) and I was trying to figure out how I was going to keep myself sane for the next 3+ months (and, potentially, the next 4-8 years.)

I was asking myself what kind of information would I want to hear right now? What would I want to learn? What would help me stay centered? And then I remembered one of my current projects. It’s a low-key project, one I’ve been ruminating on literally for years (since seminary 10 years ago.)  I wrote a blog post last month about it. I thought that perhaps, making it a bit more front-burner would be a good idea, both for me, and potentially others. I decided that I would dedicate the next 3 months at least to writing several posts a week (potentially one a day, but I don’t want to promise too much) on aspects of this project. I have tentatively named this project “Overlapping Magisteria.” I’ll describe why I’ve used that name in a subsequent blog post.

As I was thinking about what’s happening right now, not only in US politics, but in pretty much everything that’s happening in the world, I realized that it is a function of two key truths.

  • First, we human beings have the amazing capacity to live and create beyond the part of our brains designed (so incredibly well) to keep us alive, but we too often don’t. And it is crucial that we learn how to do this – or else things are going to get much worse.
  • And the second truth is that we have been taught by very wise people for literally thousands of years how to live and create beyond the part of our brains designed to keep us alive, and it’s only now that we’ve got some amazing tools to image the brain, we’ve begun to learn why that stuff works so well.

This project is actually going to take place in two places. Here will be the scientific, theological, political, and philosophical discussion and reflection. On my other site, called “Life As Practice” I’ll be posting specific practices from a variety of faith traditions designed to allow us to get out of our reptilian brains. Some of these practices have been shown by current science to have very specific effects on the brain. I’ll aim to post at least one of those per week, and I’ll be practicing them myself each week. (And, if you’d like to join, there’s a Slack team.)

I would love this to be a conversation. It doesn’t matter what your faith tradition – since this wisdom is found in all faith traditions. It doesn’t matter if you have no faith tradition, because there’s a heck-a lot of science, too. I’d love to hear your perspectives, your ideas, and your experiences. I’d love to hear how this is reflected in your life. I’d love to hear about your practices, and your wisdom.