Facing Our Shadow Side with Mindfulness

Photo by Yasin Yusuf

We human animals are capable of amazing acts of kindness and jaw dropping feats of ingenuity. Yet as complex systems within complex systems, we’re also capable of fomenting division, nurturing hatred, and enacting violence. Mindfulness can help us appreciate and capitalize on our strengths while facing the shadow side of human nature with wisdom and skill.

Though its a story retold throughout human history, the curtain has been pulled all the way back over the last several years and the volume pumped up on harmful aspects of the systems and culture we created. Elements of our society that had been relegated to the shadows were emboldened by dogwhistle politics. Many of us have been asking ourselves how we could allow this to happen.

Because we’re animals, we possess basic survival-oriented threat response circuitry in our nervous systems similar to other species, such as rodents and fish. However, humans aren’t biologically limited to acting on instinct. The human brain offers us the possibility of choice when we recognize and cultivate this capacity. Our failure to universally elevate the importance of understanding our internal experience and intentionally cultivate contemplative skills in our children, leaves us prone to emotional dysregulation and behavioral rigidity when we experience fear and other unpleasant emotions. When the mind is unexamined, our negativity bias runs wild and we react in ways meant to immediately protect us, but that only harm us all in the long-term. Mindfulness can help humanity see through the fear-motivated illusion of individualism, insularity, and scarcity to a more sustainable mindset of universalism, interconnection, and sufficiency.

A Spectrum of Morality

Some of my research has pointed to a spectrum of morality in our beliefs, systems, and institutions ranging from claims of amorality (neither moral nor immoral) one one end, to moral absolutism on the other. For example, our economy, which in the US has been our main measure of “success”, directing most of our nation’s attention and driving our choices, is self-described by its proponents as an amoral system. Economics has been characterized in our culture as a hard science of numbers rather than a social system providing a way of relating with one another. According to venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, our system of economics is not a science, its “a story that we tell ourselves which rationalizes who gets what and why… economic ideas and policies are a way of instantiating our social and moral preferences about status, privileges and power.”

Exempting economics from morality has created a zero sum system that temporarily rewards competition, greed and selfishness. But, as Hanauer warns, “an economy that systematically takes advantage of some people will eventually take advantage of everybody.” He reminds us that despite our preferences, “every economic act, every economic choice, is an explicitly moral choice, because you’re either solving people’s problems or you’re creating more problems…”

…all human societies, to one degree or another, have moral codes, and if you look at the evolutionary data or the anthropological data or cultural data, those moral codes always take very similar forms… moral codes are designed to encourage cooperation and altruism and to discourage selfishness and sociopathy. Why? Because moral codes are evolved constructs designed to enable groups of people to cooperate with one another.” – Nick Hanauer, Pitchfork Economics

Modes of Morality

Individuals and groups also fall on a spectrum of morality. In an article called “Two Modes of Morality”, the author of the article theorizes that Americans (and probably most humans) tend to operate, more or less, according to two modes of functioning:

  • In Mode 1, which is emergent, one’s moral standard of conduct in relating to others applies to all human beings. Because this mode has been ascendant, it has been the ​publicly recognized mode of morality​​, whether or not one’s actions actually conform to it.
  • In Mode 2, which is largely unconsciously driven, one’s moral standard of conduct in relating to others doesn’t include all human beings. It only applies to interactions with people in the “in-group” and is based on an instinct to compete with others for limited resources. Taken to it’s natural extension, this mode can lead to the exploitation of out-group members as a natural resource for in-group consumption. From this point of view, in-group members are entitled – even obligated – to minimize or even ignore the consequences of actions to out-group members. From this perspective, elevating out-group feelings, needs or well-being, would be foolhardy​.

Paul Gilbert wrote in How Compassion can Transform our Politics, Economy, and Society, “As primates, humans are capable of two quite different types of life strategy and motivational orientation to the world. One strategy is to be threat sensitive, self-focused, and an accumulator and defender of resources; to ‘gain, maintain, and control’ rather than be ‘a sharer’. This is a common strategy for primates, especially males who operate in hierarchies where individuals often engage in conflict for access to resources. These hierarchies tend to be regulated through threat.

Alternative strategies for survival and reproduction evolved… rooted in mutual support, sharing resources and building affiliative relationships that maintained low levels of competitive stress and intergroup aggression… Attention and status is given to people whose talents have value to others, rather than their threat potential. In hunter-gatherer type groups, people compete to be valued, chosen, wanted and appreciated, and make a contribution for the benefits of others, rather than to be controlling, feared, and submitted to. Of course, all of us can show varying degrees of these strategies, motives, and behavioural styles, but for some individuals they become the preferred orientation to life.”

Interestingly, this difference in life strategies and scope of morality seems to divide along political ideologies. A 2019 review of studies of political identity and morality (Waytz et. al. 2019) found that those who support more socially progressive policies and candidates “express compassion toward less structured and more encompassing entities” (i.e., universalism), whereas those who supported more socially conservative policies and candidates “express compassion toward more well-defined and less encompassing entities” (i.e., insularity). A study published in 2020 using a nationally representative sample of Americans through the National Opinion Research Center’s Amerispeak panel found that those who voted for the conservative candidate reported high levels of values-based intergroup bias and exhibited a psychological profile reflective of greater desire for group-based dominance, authoritarianism, and tendency to dehumanize out-groups as compared to those who did not.

The Mode 2 side of morality may have roots in certain interpretations of religion, which has lately tended to divide along political lines. An article in the Christian Science Monitor includes among these: 1) a belief that some people have special status over others (being chosen or saved, worldly success as a sign of divine favor), 2) elevation of what is felt or believed at the expense of objective data, and 3) a deep sense of victimhood or martyrdom related to perceived religious oppression or unmet entitlements, resulting in scapegoating and an us versus them mentality.

Completely bypassing morals makes it difficult for us to trust each other while holding onto them too rigidly or dogmatically oversimplifies a complex world, leads to intolerance, and becomes a tool for oppression. Finding a middle ground on the morality spectrum allows us to adhere to certain agreements between people necessary for build social capital (an element of collective wellbeing), promotes interpersonal trust, and allows us to flourish together.

A Spectrum of Interconnection to Transcendence

A related spectrum of beliefs might also be operating here, which ranges from the idea that humans are completely autonomous beings, separate from each other and our environment, and self-determined by free will, to the concept of “oneness” – that there is no distinction between self and other and no free will. Requiring absolute sameness or fusion to achieve peace or success, robs us of the richness and creativity that diversity brings and tempts us to dismiss personal responsibility for our role in the web of existence. Believing in an illusion of separation and domination denies the interconnection that binds us together and puts us in the untenable position of exercising control over the uncontrollable. A certain amount of differentiation, while acknowledging our interrelatedness, may offer a sustainable balance.

A system that is integrated is in a flow of harmony. Just as in a choir, with each singer’s voice both differentiated from the other singers’ voices but also linked, harmony emerges with integration. What is important to note is that this linkage does not remove the differences, as in the notion of blending; instead it maintains these unique contributions as it links them together… This is how integration creates the synergy of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Likewise, this synergy of integration means that the many aspects of our lives… can each be honored for their differences but then brought together in harmony. Daniel J. Siegel, MD, Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence

Exceptional In a Just World

In mainstream American culture (perhaps even more broadly among many Western cultures) there is a value placed on exceptionalism. From this perspective human beings are separate from and can master one another, other beings, and the natural world. It promises us that if we’re clever and work hard enough, we can have everything we want, be anything we want to be, limitlessly, and at no real cost beyond personal energy and effort.

There is also a viewpoint that to be average or ordinary is to be irrelevant or valueless. Increasingly we are taught to see ourselves as special, unique, and masters of our destinies. We are expected to aim high, never compromise our dreams, and never give up – to pursue our own personal success single-mindedly and relentlessly.

The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man… This mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world… But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness.Daniel Quinn, Ishmael

In addition, our belief in free will, or the idea that people are unconstrained in their ability to choose a course of action, can be problematic. Research shows that people with more conservative values and those who wish to punish someone attribute greater free will to the perceived wrongful behavior, thus holding the actor more wholly responsible for their choices. This is related to a conservative tendency to live by a “just world theory” that says good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. It’s seductive because it promises that if we are good people, we will be safe.

In-Group Empathy and Morality

When operating at the extremes of this spectrum, even empathy can become a weapon. Fritz Breithaupt, director of the Experimental Humanities Lab at Indiana University, wrote a book entitled The Dark Sides of Empathy, calling this innately human skill a “morally ambiguous capacity” that can lead us astray if we don’t fully understand it. He believes unwise empathy can polarize us and motivate harmful behavior such as tribalism, helicopter parenting, and violence. His research indicated that since 2000, empathy has devolved from something we try to feel for everyone to something felt only for those we perceive as “on our side”.

This sounds similar to the two modes of morality theory. The original concept of empathy was universal, while a smaller but significant number of Americans’ view of empathy only includes “us” and “ours”. On the other hand, believing in “oneness” can constrict our willingness to take alternative perspectives. For example, claims of “colorblindness” and denial of the impact of diverse realities can be profoundly invalidating.

Limiting morality to the “in-group” causes us to treat people in very different ways. Behavior that would be deemed immoral among friends and family becomes justifiable in relating with “strangers”. The notion of blue lies, a term coined by University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee, also fits within the exclusive model of empathy and morality. Blue lies are falsehoods told against the out-group to the advantage of the in-group and may help explain the astounding amount of blatant disinformation that has been tolerated in the social media sphere and in politics in recent years. This type of lie can be seen as a weapon of warfare that can actually strengthen in-group bonds and elevate the liar’s social standing within it.

Treating morality like an exclusive club with limited capacity causes us to operate from a zero sum mentality, imagining that our gain must come at the expense of another’s loss. One way we’ve chosen who gains admittance is by skin color. But, Heather McGhee, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Demos think tank, writes about the ways in which “a racially-inequitable society isn’t just bad for people of color, it’s also bad for white people and for our society as a whole.” For the podcast Pitchfork Economics, she explained how  “racism that was first targeted at Black and Brown communities ended up creating a monster that couldn’t be contained” when racially discriminatory and predatory loans proliferated throughout the mortgage market, resulting in the financial collapse of 2008. According to McGhee, this was just one example of how “we can’t contain the poisons that are created in a society that doesn’t care about the value of some people, some families and some communities. Ultimately, our fates are linked.” This is one of many lessons history teaches us that there is no “mine” and “yours” – there is only ours. In order for me to flourish, you must flourish as well.

A Spectrum of Sufficiency to Scarcity

In light of this, it may be helpful to consider adding a third spectrum to the equation involving a sufficiency to scarcity spectrum. Mainstream American culture teaches us more is better, but there’s not enough to go around, so we must compete and fight for what we want, need, or even “deserve” – thus life becomes a zero sum game consisting of winners and losers.

When we combine the three spectrums of mindset mentioned in this blog post, we understand that some folks are operating from a place of greater universalism, interconnection, and sufficiency, while others are operating from a place of greater individualism, insularity, and scarcity. The extremes of these spectrums of mindset serve to assuage our greatest fears: the unknown, the threat of isolation, the possibility of meaninglessness, and the inevitability of pain and death. But, in our attempts to bypass, conquer, or compensate for our human vulnerabilities, we may dehumanize and disconnect ourselves. We neglect to cultivate our greatest strength – the courage to be fully present with one another in our one precious life, with all its messiness, difficulty and uncertainty.

This too, is America

The author of Two Modes of Morality reflected, ​”This, too, is America, and we have to look it full in the face and not flinch away if we want to have any hope of dealing with it. Talking about the bad ​individuals who do bad ​things is ​… too seductive a distraction from the more terrifying problem…​”​ Those who operate from Mode 1 resist accepting this reality because it challenges our sense of safety. We recognize that if a significant number of people operate out of Mode 2, ​then nobody is truly safe. Even members of the “dominant culture” or who hold “power over”, can at any point become part of the out-group, suddenly a commodity to exploit​. We are all vulnerable when we become incapacitated by illness, lose income, develop infirmities of advanced age, or simply start to be seen as other.

…many of you have learned the painful lessons of colonial pasts and presents: you recognize that to displace another is to have displaced oneself… and that to be perched atop a pyramid is to occupy a very small place…Bayo Akomolafe

If we can face these differences in views with equanimity, acknowledging that there is suffering in extremes, we will be in a better position to respond skillfully. We must resist the urge to use these differences as fuel for othering, indulging in self-righteousness, or speaking the language of dehumanization. We can instead see them as the logical outgrowth of problematic cultural practices, societal values, norms, and traditions. Mindfulness can help us see the complex causes and conditions underlying these difference and develop the skillful means to change them.

Teaching Mindfulness as Antidote

While moral absolutism is unwise in a diverse world, we can also prevent a slide into moral nihilism by educating ourselves regarding what actions have been contextually beneficial throughout history and what actions have been harmful. In Buddhism, it has long been understood that there are different kinds of learners and many gradations along the path are needed for realization. In education, we understand that people have different learning preferences and that students learn more easily when we teach to these preferences. Good teachers teach differently according to the capabilities, motivations and inclinations of their students.

If we want to contribute to the possibility for ourselves and others to find lasting happiness, we have to meet one another where we are. This requires a skillful balance of not condoning harmful attitudes and behavior, while at the same time not alienating or dehumanizing those who hold harmful views. We also must not be tempted to resort to harmful means (like fighting fire with fire), which as Gandhi taught, are always present in the ends.

The levels of teaching in Buddhism (as I understand them) start with 1) understanding the mind and cultivating discipline (outer practice), 2) connecting with compassion and cultivating beneficial qualities (inner motivation), and 3) recognizing innate wisdom and practicing to realize our potential (essential view). So, if we agree with the premise that adopting Mode 1 morality is an important factor in decreasing suffering and Mode 2 morality keeps people trapped in a vicious cycle, how do we help each other see the wisdom in embracing Mode 1? How might we extrapolate the approach of wise teachers who came before us in order to address this dilemma? At MAM, our approach so far has been a process of helping people:

  1. make the unconscious conscious through basic mindfulness practice, so we can see for ourselves the workings of our minds, our habits and conditioning – as well as their consequences from a broader view.
  2. build motivation for change by awakening to the ways in which Mode 2 condemns each of us individually (and collectively) to a cycle of suffering.
  3. cultivate the courage to, little by little, step out of the cycle of “eat or be eaten” so we can see for ourselves that this new way of being increases our happiness.
  4. nourish the natural resulting desire to help others step out of the cycle and decrease their own suffering so that we might all be free.

I would love to hear others’ ideas about how we might connect across differences, speak a language others can hear, and meet people where they are in the teaching of mindfulness and other contemplative approaches. Together we might co-create a paradigm shift, letting go of conditioned constraints, opening our minds to more creative solutions, and paving the way for inclusive and sustainable human flourishing.

Other References

Everett, J. et. al. (2020). Political Differences in Free Will Belief Are Associated With Differences in Moralization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Forscher, P. S., & Kteily, N. S. (2020). A Psychological Profile of the Alt-RightPerspectives on Psychological Science15(1), 90–116.

Waytz, A., Iyer, R., Young, L. et al. (2019).Ideological differences in the expanse of the moral circle. Nat Commun 10, 4389.

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