By Tom Welch
I’d like to acknowledge my wife Gitta’s contribution to this piece. Gitta led me to a very interesting and helpful video that covers all of the following material, which you can view here at the bottom of this article.
Homo Sapiens Sapiens.
This is our species name. It means that we not only think, but that we are capable of thinking about our thinking. All other thinking creatures use their thoughts directly as a tool to get what they want, whether that is remembering where food is to be found or how to get hold of it, once there.
They don’t think, as far as we know, about their thinking. Some people call this directed thinking, the monkey brain. The monkey brain drives each animal to satisfy its urges as soon as the urge is noticed. It is a high-order functioning tool. Animals not provided this tool rely instead on lower-order tools, such as instinct (e.g., gazelles) or instinctual behavior patterns, like bees or ants.
So, why this biology lesson?
Are we just congratulating ourselves on having the best mental tools? Not at all. The important point is that most people operate as Homo Sapiens, only. That is, we use our “monkey brains” to satisfy our natural human desires, such as winning the most attractive mate, the most wealth, or the greatest power over others. The monkey brain is very useful for satisfying any desire from food to sex.
From a moral perspective, most societies view the use of our monkey brains in this way as morally-neutral, neither good nor evil, just a way to satisfy natural drives. Rather, a society’s moral distinctions are applied to the means, the methods, one employs in this pursuit.
So, why this sociology lesson?
If there is nothing inherently wrong in pursuing our desires (“… Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness …” are inalienable rights, per the American Declaration of Independence), why shouldn’t we all spend all (or at least the greater part) of our lives satisfying our desires?
It’s because of the second ‘Sapiens.’ The reality that we can think about our thinking means that we are not in the ‘eternal now’ where other creatures reside. We rehash the past. We worry about the future. We question ourselves, our decisions, our very worth. And we find that the pursuit of happiness alone does not satisfy us. We find ourselves repeatedly thinking about where we have been, where we might be going and what we may have missed along the way.
The single-minded ‘real-time’ pursuit of happiness does not address the issues of past, future or self-worth, and so we are often left unsatisfied and unhappy.
Well, isn’t it good to be in the ‘now?’ After all, don’t most of us try to spend more time in realtime, in the present? It would be, except. Except that our desires are never satisfied. Whether food or passion, promotions or recognition, there is never enough and our desires are never satisfied.
The monkey brain is never sated. There are never enough rotting bananas to satisfy the chimpanzee. If the chimp consumes enough to pass out, upon regaining consciousness it begins to consume again. So we, you and I, will never achieve happiness through the pursuit of it. Sorry, Thomas Jefferson, the quest you set us on is a fool’s errand. And many of us—perhaps most—do lead lives pursuing happiness, where we are dissatisfied with our current condition or self, in spite of perhaps many accomplishments nd successes.
Are we then doomed to live unhappy lives?
Not at all. Because we are able to think about our thinking, we can recognize a thought, any thought, and set it aside and choose not to pursue it. We don’t have to follow the monkey brain script. This (after we have spent a long time meandering through this piece) is called Mindfulness. If fact, at the risk of offending our friends in science, we could call ourselves, Homo Sapiens Mindfulness.
Mindfulness, or the ability to think about thoughts, is important because it allows us to step off the path of unproductive thinking. Otherwise, if we don’t use our second Sapiens, every unproductive thought places us on a path to follow that thought through to its unhappy conclusion, which often leads to the next unproductive thought.
When we hear the phrase, control one’s thinking, many people react as if hearing someone advocate thought control or brainwashing, or some similar term with the connotation of loss of control over one’s mind, over one’s thinking, over one’s self. Mindfulness gives us, rather, power over our thinking, control of our inner state of mind. It frees us from unhealthy mental scripts that we often learn as children, taught or learned from circumstances, or that we have taught ourselves after repeated unsatisfying pursuits.
And mindfulness is simple.
All that is needed is that we become aware of our thoughts and be willing to make a nonjudgmental review of them as they fly unbidden into and through our minds. We then decide which are worth pursuing, and dismiss the others as unwanted. So, let’s use this, our second Sapiens.
And a final thought. Do you think meditation might be a powerful tool for unleashing our second Sapiens? But that’s a story for another day. Perhaps you would like to write it!
Tom Welch has worked as a clerk, a high school math teacher, a radio intercept operator in the army, in finance at a large company, and as a leader/teacher for groups of adjudicated teens as well as for parents and children in a community education program that explores the effects of addiction on the family. His blog contains the items published on The Tattooed Buddha as well as a number of other writings. The family husky, Spirit, is 14 years old and loves cold weather, the colder the better. It is Tom’s assignment to walk the dog every morning without complaint. Spirit is getting very old. We are enjoying her while we can.
Editor: Daniel Scharpenburg