After the Age of Anxiety

Image by Dove Dahlia

Consider that 100 years ago, pneumonia and influenza were the leading causes of death, the first of two world wars of mass violence had erupted, and The Dustbowl and Great Depression were on deck. It was still a dangerous world as it had been for many centuries prior, especially for minorities and women.

Today, according to many metrics, we are living in the safest time in human history. Crime, especially homicide, is in long term decline, and people are more likely to die of old age than from violence. Malnutrition is down from 50% 100 years ago to its lowest rate in history of 13%, and for the first time more people are obese than hungry. Similarly, infectious disease and extreme poverty are also markedly down worldwide, though there are poignant exceptions to all these positive safety trends.

However, these improved outward patterns do not seem compatible with the general population's internal experience. 40 million adults suffer from anxiety disorders in America and 25% of all teens are affected, making anxiety the most common mental illness characterized by extreme fear and worry.

So, why are we so anxious? Is anxiety really on the rise, as it appears and does modern society actually breed it? Or is it possible that when you remove the outer clear and present dangers of the past, we are left with our ancestors' internal legacy of fear?

Perhaps, this helps explain why scientists have been unsuccessful at significantly raising the level of worry about realistic existential threats in the future such as climate change or the overdue super-volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park. There is already plenty of worry in the mind and something like global warming is still too abstract. But those potential disasters may once again align the inner and outer human condition, effectively ending the age of anxiety, when anxiety is no longer framed as anxiety.

In any case, emotions are like ancient algorithms and the past few decades of safety is not enough time for evolution to re-program a more nuanced stress response to modern problems.

This points to two distinct possibilities for the chapter after this age of anxiety: a golden window of safety begins to close as scientifically predicted doom becomes more manifest, giving way to another age of fear and danger. Or, we develop an integrative understanding of anxiety along with the tools to speed up our emotional evolution, ushering in a welcome era of contentment and peace.

This episode include a deep dive into the latter scenario - a scenario that perhaps would be the necessary social reform to actually free up the mental space to solve those future threats.

“To put is still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.” -Alan Watts

Loneliness and the Trance of Busyness
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Even with all the comfort that advances in technology have bestowed, it does not seem that people, in general, have time to relax and fully connect. Communication breakthroughs have been achieved with a double-edged sword. With so much of our lives uploaded to the internet and our brains downloaded to the external hard drives of smart phones, the demands and work and hustle and distractions never end resulting in a trance of busyness.

Hence, loneliness in America and throughout much of the world has risen to epidemic proportions.

A national survey by Cigna Health revealed that more than half of Americans feel lonely and researchers have found loneliness to be the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day and worse than obesity, in terms of health risk and premature death.

Though we may go on increasing our contacts - studies show that with each passing decade, the average number of close friends that one could count on in crisis continues to decline.

Which age group is the most lonely? The elderly of World-War Eras? Baby-boomers? Millennials? Though they all suffer high levels of loneliness among their respective age segments, the answer is Generation Z.

This is the most alarming statistic and means that children are growing up in a new paradigm of psycho-social distance and mental health risk. Young people report that though they may be surrounded by others, no one knows them very well. What we are lacking is depth of connection and hopefully mindfulness, meditation and a modern path to spiritual fellowship can become the next public health revolution.

"I would rather have 2 half-dollars than 100 pennies." -a smart kid

Unlost in Transition
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We have transitioned to a new year. It is a symbol of letting go of the old and embracing the new. Traditionally, it is a time to live our better intentions and establish healthier routines. On a larger scale, we are now in the process of transitioning to a new decade. What have we learned about ourselves? What do we envision not only this year but in the upcoming decade? It is an opportunity to pause and consider the steps to a more beautiful life and world.

"Transition" can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it refers to the process or period of changing from one state or condition to another. As a verb, it refers to causing such a process. Nature will script many transitions beyond our control - sometimes painfully. The nouns are set. If we willingly change and grow in the present - learning the art of transition each day - we will be ready. Ultimately, when our transitions are mindful, crossing over can be more of a celebration.

"To change with change is the changeless state." -Bruce Lee

Symbol on the Psyche
symbols

The lotus flower grows in murky ponds which is a metaphor for making life beautiful regardless of the circumstances. And its leaf sits on top of the water but does not get wet. I was amazed when I took a lotus leaf and dunked it in water and watched all the drops roll right off like little balls of mercury. So it grows in that water but is unaffected by it.

This episode explores the deeper meaning of significant symbols from cultures around the world and various spiritual traditions and how to find symbols in daily life to guide our mindfulness practice.

"A symbol is an important thing. That is why we chose an Aztec eagle. It gives pride...When people see it they know it means dignity." -Cesar Chavez

Human Kind: Being Both
human kind

Beautiful people are not always good, but good people are always beautiful. This claim is supported by a recent social psychology study in which three groups of subjects were asked to rate the attractiveness of the same faces of strangers. Group 1 was given negative descriptors about the people they were looking at - like mean, cruel, etc. Group 2 was told nothing. Group 3 received positive descriptors of the same strangers - kind, honest, etc. Group 3 found the faces to be the most physically attractive, followed by Group 2 and then 1.

Knowing something about another's personality can actually change the way the brain perceives their physical features. According to evolutionary theory, our assessment of the fitness value of a potential social partner is a hybrid of physical and non-physical characteristics.

Science also suggests that kindness forms a virtuous feedback loop. Kindness generates happiness, and happiness motivates people to be kind. But there is a catch - intention matters. It does not work if you do something kind for others for the sake of becoming happy or gaining something in return. This is known as "strategic kindness" and only yields pleasure as opposed to "altruistic kindness" which means without the desire for a reward and leads to real happiness. fMRI studies reveal that separate regions of the brain are activated for each kind of kind, putting the "true" back in altruism.

Most spiritual traditions emphasize love for all and to be of service to others. The needed energy and enthusiasm arise quite naturally as a result of meditation and leading a more contemplative life.

"To a wise one, the whole earth is open - because the true country of a virtuous soul is the entire universe." –Democritus

Endangered Aesthetics and the Future of Beauty
beauty

Surveys reveal that audiences cannot tell the difference between musical compositions written by humans and those by artificial intelligence and often rate the AI compositions as more "inspiring" and "soulful."

However, there are some timeless principles for how to appreciate beauty, such as those elucidated by the heavily Buddhist-influenced yet culturally endangered Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi. Perhaps the outlook is more critical than the outcome. By mindfully tuning to the reality that nothing is perfect, nothing is complete and nothing lasts - we can experience more freedom, acceptance and a deeper sense of spiritual wonder for the unfolding of the drama of it all.

”Technology has flooded the world with music. We used to have to pay for music or make it ourselves. Playing, hearing and experiencing it was exceptional - a rare special experience. Now, hearing it is ubiquitous and silence is the rarity we pay for and savor.” –David Byrne

The Last Taboo
the last taboo

Death is the great mystery surrounding existence, and the nature of belief about the beyond forms the core of each religious philosophy.

But imagine if we could replay the unfolding of the universe and the emergence of life on this planet never included a physical death in the equation - would there have even been religion?

It seems the ephemeral aspect of the human body is what ultimately creates the spark of spiritual seeking in the mind. However, it remains as difficult as ever to have meaningful conversation with others about the subject. Studies suggest that less than 20% of adults dare to attempt to discuss "end-of-life" preferences with family members.

75% of Americans die in the hospital or nursing home. Additionally, medicare spends as much as $200 billion annually on care during the last two months of life. This represents a significant chunk of total health expenditures in America. It is estimated that no more than 30% of this spending leads to any real benefit for the patients. Contrast this with the fact that 88% of people on Earth believe in an afterlife. That we could be more emotionally prepared as a society is an understatement.

Ordinarily, to talk about death would seem too dark for many but there is a difference between a healthy awareness of our own mortality and an obsession about it. It is difficult to fathom how alienating it must be for those directly and privately dealing with dying or loss while the community-at-large appears fully engaged in what philosopher Ernest Becker described in "The Denial of Death" as their "immortality project."

Surveys show that millennials are the least religious generation in human history. The need for new and open-minded discussion is apparent. Surely, meditative insight now into this one certainty that connects us all - need not be dark but rather enlightening. Just think of the kindness and clarity of purpose that could manifest and how petty hangups and bitterness could be more easily released along with so much needless suffering by bringing into focus what is most essential.

"Fear of death follows from the fear of life. One who lives fully is prepared to die." -Mark Twain

Epic Philosophy of Epictetus
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Many people may think of stoicism as putting on a strong face during adversity and forcing oneself to endure without complaining. 

But stoicism is also a system of philosophy with a set of mindful principles that were carefully studied and practiced by big thinkers of ancient Greece. When a seeker deeply contemplates and scientifically experiments with these precepts, the inner resources to pass life's seemingly harshest tests will manifest even before they are needed and one can experience more mental balance like a calm mountain during a storm.

This episode explores a few of the stoic insights from a 2,000 year old text known as "The Manual" to see how this ancient wisdom can apply to modern living. Excerpts rendered into contemporary English by Sam Torode.

Putting The Awe Back In Awesome
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We use the word "awesome" very loosely in conventional speech - typically to describe someone, something or a situation that's agreeable or favorable in any way. But the genuine feeling or experience of awe is rarer, much deeper and less understood when compared with other emotions. However, emerging research, such as that conducted by psychologists Keltner and Haidt, is helping to unravel this mysterious state of consciousness and it's evolutionary potential.

Awe may best be defined as a blurring of the emotional boundaries between admiration and fear. Therefore, some psychologists hypothesize that it is felt in the autonomic nervous system when both the fight-flight and relaxation responses are turned "on" - to some extent - at the same time.

This feeling can be triggered by encounters with vastness or in the presence of unfathomable qualities in nature, art, technology and people. MRI studies point to a reduction of activity in the parietal lobe of the brain. This region is involved with our sense of self as distinct in space, and inactivity in that part of the cortex may account for or correlate to self-transcendence and a sense of oneness. These brain and perceptual changes have also been observed in studies of meditation, sensory deprivation, and psychedelic drugs.

Awe is not nearly as inaccessible as it sounds. It is uncommon because it is subtle. Thus, mindfulness may be our most practical tool to safely explore this state and derive it's unique benefits.

Peace in the Center
Peace in the Center

The spinning wheel can be dizzying, but, in the center, there is stillness.  Similarly, the formidable waves are only found on the surface of the ocean, not when one dives deep.  Peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise or disturbance but to find calmness within the heart despite outer circumstances.  This episode unwraps some ancient contemplative texts, including passages from the Tao Te Ching, and reflects on the lives of a few peaceful figures.  

 

Clarity: Cutting Through The Clouds
Clarity

Beyond the clouds, the sky is always clear. Similarly, most diamonds have flaws known as cloud inclusions, which reduce the clarity of the otherwise precious crystal and limit its brilliance or shine. A diamond is the most concentrated form of pure carbon on Earth, and the flaws are often hard to detect with the naked eye. 

The human mind also has subtle clouds that obstruct mental clarity. In psychology, these are known as cognitive biases or heuristics - patterns of flawed shortcuts in the brain.

This episode explores some of the most interesting distortions that block clear thinking. By cutting through these clouds, we can naturally illuminate the mind and let the light of knowledge shine through us.

Bending Time: How Physical Laws, Culture And Mindfulness Change The Clock
Time

It flies and heals. People try to make it, buy it, save it and kill it.  Yet, there is never enough of it, and it might not be real.  It is T I M E. 

Many cultures personify and deify Time.  Kronos is the father of Zeus in Greek mythology and therefore older than god.  Hindus may worship Mahakala or the lord of time.  In America, we have the expression, "Father Time is undefeated."   Even if only imaginative mythology, it can teach the importance of respecting time and using it wisely.

This episode breaks down our ideas and beliefs about time to illuminate a radically different but potentially happier and saner approach and like a child, even a slowing down of this strangely beautiful flash of life.

(Music intro by E. Fink and song "Timeless" by Lee Rosevere)

Democracy Of Trees: What The Forest Can Teach Us About Community Health
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Trees care for each other in very special ways. They have family relationships. Sometimes, the offspring of a felled tree will continue to keep the parental stump alive with its roots, even for centuries. There are bonds beyond family as well. For instance, Fir trees and Birch trees take turns supporting the other in winter and summer. Nutrients and information are shared underground via root systems and the mycorrhizal network of fungi. This is evidence for the importance of biodiversity.

The poet John Donne wrote, "No man is an island... and any man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind." Trees seem to live this wisdom and understand on some level that every tree matters to the well-being of the whole forest. If even one tree is destroyed, the eco-system becomes comprised, the canopy has a hole and the micro-climate shifts in temperature and moisture jeopardizing the health of all trees.  Therefore, they employ unique mechanisms to protect the community.  In this episode, Todd explores the philosophy, mythology, and ecology of the forest world and how it relates to human potential.

"Trees are poems that the Earth writes upon the sky." -Khalil Gibran

(Intro by E. Fink and song "Morning Walk" by Lee Rosevere)

Light In The Dark
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The first day of winter is known as the solstice and is the shortest day of the year.  But it also indicates the return of the light and each day from that moment will be longer until the first day of summer.  

This episode explores the problem with the notion of absolute good and evil with metaphors and music as tools for getting at the heart of things.

"What is a good man but a bad man's teacher. What is a bad man but a good man's job."  -Lao Tzu

(With intro music by E. Fink)

Paradox of Humility
Humility

Humility is often defined as meekness and refers to having a modest opinion of one's importance and yet, it is practiced as a virtue in spiritual traditions around the world as a way to manage the ego and part of a path to self-actualization and transcendence.

Now, we have new scientific evidence and research from Duke University that shows how being intellectually humble actually expands one's influence, enhances leadership and makes us all-around better people. 

"True humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less."  -C.S. Lewis

(With intro music by E. Fink, courtesy of Crooked Creek Records and music by Christopher Lloyd Clarke, licensed from Enlightened Audio)

Todd Fink
Silence Is The Musician's Canvas
silence

Is silence really silent? Ordinarily, we have minimal access to and even avoid silence until it's time to retire for sleep. This episode explores the deeper significance of silence as evidenced in the work of two legendary musician philosophers of the 20th century - one trained in Western Classical music and the other in Eastern Classical music.

(Music "Through The Prism" courtesy of and written by Chris Russell)