Monday, 2 February 2009

The 'frequency' for conciliation

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962, was the first and only nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Some of the defensive actions taken were precisely the actions that finally averted an atomic and catastrophic world war from erupting. US President of the day, Kennedy, first decided to restrict the flights of the U-2 planes over the length of Cuba. Kennedy hoped this would ensure that a U-2 plane would not be shot down, so making US retaliation obligatory. The CIA and the military were still in favour of a bombing raid and/or an invasion. While negotations were ongoing, news came through that a U-2 plane had been shot down over Cuba. The leaders of the US military, reminding Kennedy of the promise he had made, argued that he should now give orders for the bombing of Cuba. Kennedy refused and instead sent a letter to Russia's Khrushchev accepting the terms of Khrushchev's first letter sent during the negotiations. Khrushchev agreed and gave orders for the Cuban missiles to be dismantled. One of the keys to Kennedy averting a 'show-down' during the Cuban missile crisis was through his ability to focus on what Khrushchev was thinking and consider what mattered most to Khrushchev. Thankfully (and hopefully!), Barack Obama's approach appears to be similar in many ways to Kennedy's, demonstrating an ability to understand and tap into people's hearts and minds, people's opposing perspectives, motivations and desires.

Following on from my Good Vibrations blog, in January, talking about how we tap into an emotional 'frequency' observing that when we do so, others can change accordingly, those around us as well as ourselves, I have decided to provide some 'science' to back it up. This blog is talking more about the real impact on our lives where we enhance our ability to first seek to understand the very people who are causing us trouble or pain; and some science supporting the idea of an emotional 'frequency'. Pressing pause on some of our more destructive emotions brings us closer to finding solutions to our problems.

Hate the System, Not the People
During his inaugural address, Nelson Mandela spoke of a slow realisation he had while in prison under the guard of his enemy for 27 years during the Apartheid rule. Over time he realised how these guards did not seem to particularly enjoy the role they were taking either. It was only when he began to see past his own hatred of his enemies that he could become the leader of the future and so destroy the real enemy to mankind, Apartheid. He changed his hatred as one away from people and towards the system that held people in these destructive patterns. As such, only through feeling compassion for others, regardless of their position in the conflict, could he change that system, engaging South Africa in embracing this change. I remember a terrible story of him losing his son in a car accident, allegedly engineered to break his spirit while in prison, and then some time after, discovering that the prison guard assigned to him had lost his son in a car accident. He registers that the empathy that flowed between them was heart-felt and genuine at the deepest level, despite their opposing positions. He points to this ability to feel empathy towards his enemies as being the chief reason for him finally being capable of destroying this system of Apartheid. How he got there was through intense reflection, suffering and a level of self-control that most people cannot imagine. It is almost unimaginable to find the strength to see past one's child being murdered but somehow he managed.

There are similar sage words all throughout history if we choose to look, from earlier than 300 BC, with Sun T'zu's "The Art of War":

"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle";

and further similar words of wisdom from Robert McNamara in his book and documentary "The Fog of War" following his disastrous handling of the US' Vietnam Campaign, rule 9 out of his 10 rules about war:

"If we are to deal effectively with terrorists across the globe, we must develop a sense of empathy—I don't mean "sympathy," but rather "understanding"—to counter their attacks on us and the Western World".

I would add, that one must adequately understand oneself first. In McNamara's documentary, "The Fog of War", he talks about sitting next to an ambassador for Vietnam at a dinner many years after the Vietnam conflict and being told that if he had understood anything about the acrimonious history between Vietnam and China, North America would never have feared an alliance and so the attack on Vietnam could have been averted. The fear and then the negative and often erroneous future predictions that follow on from such fear can activate terrible decisions by our Leaders if they are unable to distance themselves from this sort of emotional reasoning.

The Neuroscience of Our States of Mind
So, how do we achieve heightened self-awareness, self-control and insight? When we go deeper into relaxation, we achieve such heightened receptivity, inspiration, emotional control as well as sometimes long-forgotten memories. We can even enter quite an elusive and transcendant "Theta" state, where brain activity slows almost to the point of sleep, but not quite. When the brain is operating in the Theta state it can bring about accelerated cognitive, emotional and behavioural change. Theta can be measured and induced through hypnosis, relaxation and meditation. You might know that you are in Theta as it can be accompanied by very pleasurable sensations of floating and weightlessness. We know that when the brain is in the Theta state it allows us readier access to our 'tacit' consciousness, referred to by psychoanalysts as the subconscious and unconscious. During stressful or highly emotional episodes, this area is closed to us as our critical thinking abilities are heightened as we become enmeshed in the quite destructive 'fight or flight' mode. Psychologists can now use various means of neurofeedback to indicate when the Theta state has been achieved and teach others how to tap into this as opposed to reacting to our more instinctive 'fight or flight' responses.

Why are we doing this? Well for a number of reasons. The most prevalent currently is as an important part in behavior modification programs such as anger management and in the treatment of food, drug and alcohol addictions. Frequently, angry people, addicts and people struggling with severe weight problems are less skilled at altering their mood or state than the average person. Human beings are very adaptable and will find other, if maladaptive, ways to relieve tension and stress. It stands to reason that drugs, alcohol and food would become alternatives and that anger could easily prevail.

Putting this into Practice
Imagine for a minute if these were the strategies that world leaders resorted to when dealing with international threats! Perhaps we do not need to. When we look back in time to how US President Bush reacted to the attacks on the World Trade Centre, we can see that it was accompanied by such an emotional intensity that it likely prevented full consideration of all the likely as yet unforeseen consequences to such a retaliation. As Sun T'zu observed many centuries ago (will we ever learn from our history?):

"He who wishes to fight must first count the cost. When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men's weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be dampened. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor dampened, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue... In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns" (The Art of War)

Apply also this quote above to the costly and unhappy process of an acrimonious divorce. Our own reasons for developing empathy and emotional self-control are much more likely to affect us personally. When we enhance our empathy and self-control, we enhance our effectiveness with our loved ones, our friends and work colleagues. Our lives become more fulfilled at deeper levels than ever imagined possible.

Furthermore, there is a growing trend in leadership development as we realise that we can learn to be better leaders. Shouldn't these skills be obligatory for anyone with the power to create war, to destroy our environment or make other people's lives better or worse? Most good leaders can remember a time where they were less effective and have a story to tell about how they became the positive influence that they now are. Change and self-discovery is a natural process.

These are very real stories and useful insights to begin exploring one's own limits and opportunities. In changing our worlds, we begin only when we consider how we ourselves can change. As the leader of India's independence, a humanist and pacifist, Ghandi, once said, "we must be the change we wish to see in the world". Finding more enlightened ways of resolving our disputes minus bloodshed and oppression is something that I will support until I am no longer here.