Natasha Clark Risk | Philosophy
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Note: Feel free to skip the explanatory preamble if you’re looking for a meditation to help you build community.

As a little girl, I wanted to change the world. As a teenager, I joined the Mormon church because I found communion there when I desperately needed it in my life and because I trusted people who told me they had the truth. I believed this truth would lead to happiness but I found myself deeply depressed for several periods throughout fourteen years. In fact, the only time in my life I’ve been depressed longer than a couple of weeks of commonplace grief, was while I was Mormon. I felt trapped and I felt grief that my hopes for making the world a better place were not coming to fruition. My faith only isolated me from the wider community to the point that it was hard to connect with others. I viewed non-Mormon people as prospects for my church and longed to convert them so that we could have a meaningful relationship of shared beliefs and values. The Mormons with whom I shared beliefs and values were too different from me in almost every other respect. When I left the Mormon church, concluding that I didn’t believe in free will, I didn’t believe in a prescriptive God, I didn’t believe that perfect love could ever be communicated or acted out in a highly structured system of rules and force through fear, shame, guilt, and reporting on each other, I lost my community. 

I found intersectional feminism and social justice. I was drawn in by the wise analysis of power versus oppression and the call to equality and to help the vulnerable and afflicted. I found a community here but the one I found turned out to be a different version of what I had already experienced. Rather than being limited to theories, practices, and works of love, humility and unity, social justice and feminist principles get used as tools of power and oppression in a horrible irony. The goal posts are always changing so that people never reach purity or righteousness, and they use new language and rules to signal their righteousness and superiority over others and their rightful place within the tribe. They appoint hierarchical leadership and they excommunicate through shunning. I’m not the only person to discover that they’ve stumbled into The Church of Social Justice

There are true principles in both churches and I’m grateful for the foundational understanding that they’ve given me. I continue to operate from what I’ve learned from each belief system. I still passionately identify as an intersectional feminist. 

But I’ve been longing for something more. A better set of theories and practices from which to engage with people and to select from those people whom I want closest around me. 

Without entirely understanding why, I felt compelled to take up a position as a community manager within the coworking space in which I operated a small creative agency. I’ve been drawn over the past two years to some people working in something called collaboration design. As they passed some books along, all the pieces have come together to form a new belief system. I realize that the past few years have been difficult, operating without a belief system. My behaviours haven’t been aligned with some of the values that I have, without being grounded to any foundation of what I know to be true. I’ve been shifting about, trying on different practices and theories to see what feels right and what works. Nothing has felt right or true in a way that allows me to be at peace and patient when things don’t work out as I expect. 

Just a couple of sentences and paragraphs within Small Arcs of Larger Circles by Nora Bateson, and Community by Peter Block caused a bunch of puzzle pieces to suddenly shift into place. I have been waking in the middle of the night, immediately thinking about what I’ve read, feeling as though my brain is on fire with connections and my skin is newly alive. It is good to have a home again within myself, good to be operating from a foundation. 

Here is that foundation. 

I’m yearning to be a servant to a community, a facilitator, and I’m yearning to learn from them, too. But because people are so vulnerable to forgetting what moves them and are so susceptible to fear and grumpiness from reading world news, or from having our feelings hurt, etc, or because I am, I thought I should write for myself a meditation to read for when I want to remind myself of what I believe so I can get grounded. 

 

A Meditation for Building Community

All people are valuable to a community either by contributing positive energy and ideas or by offering challenges for others to respond to.

I can learn from other people and I can teach them. As we each teach what we know, trading information around like commerce, we raise the level of consciousness and happiness together.

People are vulnerable ecosystems where I should tread lightly with opinions and judgments lest I wear a permanent path to certain conclusions. I will never know their landscape if I’m always taking the same route. I want to know people for who they are, not for what they can do for me, or for who they are only in relation to me.

If I want to connect people to each other to foster community around me, I need to know who they are in relation to each other, too. I can observe and learn what they offer each other. I can know people by watching how other people know and experience them and that is as valuable as how I experience them.

The person I feel uncomfortable around today may one day become a friend. Someone I dislike today may become someone I respect and enjoy later.

I will take the time to know people and allow for the possibility that I’m wrong in how I perceive them, or to allow them the freedom and space to change who they are. I will support people as they engage and change.

By being present with people, listening intently to understand and creating maps of them in my mind, withholding judgment and choosing confusion over the need for certainty at the expense of their emotional safety or reputation, I will create a home for them. Even expressing strong opinions that are positive can create reticence in someone else to express a contrary opinion and if I want to know what other people really think, which I do, I should be mindful of when an opinion can be oppressive even in its joy. 

I want to be people’s home and I want them to find a home within each other. It is the only way that people can feel comfortable to be the degree of vulnerable necessary to really learn from each other. If people don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel respected and able to be imperfect as they stumble along, they will just protect their egos and people can’t learn and grow from a place of ego.

People may not like or understand me right away but this can change. I may not communicate well, creating confusion around my values and intentions, but in time, more interactions will come to the surface of other people’s awareness of me, and my missteps will fade into the background. People see each other through their own filters. They pattern match with other people they have experienced. One aspect of my personality or behaviour may stand out to someone, reminding them of someone else they don’t like, and it will take time before more exposure to me gives them new information that doesn’t fit the pattern, allowing me to be a new, complicated person to them.

If I make a mistake around someone, I can try to correct it, or if that will only generate awkwardness and more mistrust, I can just let it be and trust them to give me the benefit of the doubt. Most people I surround myself with will do this because I gravitate toward people who are self-secure and don’t need to criticize or dislike me in order to like themselves. If people are merciless with me, they are not my people. I will have to accept, though, that I can generate mistrust and I need to allow time and more positive interactions to earn that trust back. I am not always in alignment with my own values and it’s okay for people to mistrust me and to revise their opinion of me. Accepting this holds myself accountable and reminds me of my responsibility to do my best to communicate my values in all of my interactions. If I stay grounded in my values, it will guide my behaviour toward consistency so that I make sense to people.

We are all enough as we are right now because this is all we can be, until we become home enough amongst each other to scaffold our understanding and development.

Nothing good comes about through force. Patience in all relationships leads to quality connections and enduring binds that can support an entire community through any hardship. And if we are to make it to the end of our lives with the least amount of pain and the most amount of happiness possible, we absolutely depend upon each other to comfort us when we’re afflicted, supplement our efforts around a goal, celebrate with us, and spread beauty and joy by sharing our talents.

I’ve been working on a framework, a foundation, for how we can build relationships, commune with one another, and cope with life. It’s a very simple framework but leads to a powerful impact on how we treat each other, resulting in more kindness, patience, mercy, and respect for others and ourselves, and also more humility within ourselves.

It starts with a foundation of just three things I think we can know.

1. We exist. (Solved by philosophy.)

To some, this might sound obvious, worthy of eye-rolling, but it’s a disputed idea that has led philosophers to near-insanity (most notably Descartes who I’m going to say solved this for us). Whether we are imagining everything we experience, as brains in the sky being controlled by aliens, or whether this is all a dream, we can’t really know. Inasmuch as we can puzzle this out, Descartes already did and I see no problems whatsoever with believing that we’re real, that our existence is real, and I do see problems with believing that nothing matters because it isn’t real. So, for the sake of being able to believe anything at all, we will start here: We exist. And…

2. We want to continue to exist. (Solved by evolutionary science, and philosophy.)

If the entire branch of theology were not enough to prove that people universally want to survive past death, evolution also proves a strong drive to survive. The urge to survive by avoiding death, overcoming death, procreating so that our genetics survive us, or parenting or seeking fame so that our stories survive us, drives about half of what we do. The other half of the time, we’re just trying to be happy.

3. We are always trying to avoid pain and seek pleasure. (Solved by math and evolutionary science.)

Where it seems like people are seeking pain, it’s only because that pain is either serving a higher order pleasure later to come (like when we lift weights to get healthy and to form an appearance we find pleasing), or it’s the case that a higher order pleasure compensates with a greater fortitude (as is the case when people experience both pain and pleasure at the same time).

Everyone, at all times, is processing a mathematical equation of pain vs. pleasure. We aren’t even aware of all of the inputs that produce the equation (see diagram below). We are impacted by fears embedded in our subconscious, things we don’t even remember that drive us. We’re impacted by subliminal messages around us we can’t remember seeing or hearing. And we all place different values on different experiences or accomplishments based on how much importance was put upon them by the people we look up to.

Additionally, pain triggers our reptilian brains which survey the environment, keeping track of dangers. Pain signifies danger because pain can mean that death looms ahead.

All of this means that we are animals constantly trying to survive… who became computers built on top of an animal foundation, now computing decisions to serve our animal selves.

Then we became supercomputers. We evolved enough to have the ability to think about our thinking. We can observe ourselves, analyze ourselves, question ourselves, and this gives us the powerful illusion that we’re deciding freely all the time when animals are actually still operating the computers.

I don’t believe we are able to choose from any or all options at any given time. We can only operate under the conditions that 1. we’re trying hard to survive and 2. we always want to experience pleasure and avoid pain. The pain and desire to avoid pain decide for us.

Even if we do have free will, it’s not to the full extent we would like to believe— on that, scientists and philosophers agree. We’ve found that we can study the brain in ways that let us see decision-making happen before the owner of the brain realizes they’ve made a decision. We’ve also found that we so desperately need to believe that we do everything for reasons within our control, that we will do things and come up with reasons later. Split-brain experiments show this dramatically.

So, what do we do with this?

I think all theories of human behaviour and what to do with it need to start here. I am calling the three points above, which I believe to be irrefutably true, The Three Immutable Laws of Humanity. These laws produce natural consequences and moral consequences.

Natural Consequences of the Three Immutable Laws of Humanity

1. We can’t “check out”. We can do drugs, we can meditate as much as possible, we can become Tibetan monks, but the pains of existence will still bear down upon us.

2. We act primally, causing pain around us so that we can avoid feeling pain.

3. We can’t be forced to do anything except through inflicting what ultimately amounts to either pain or pleasure.

4. We are predictable inasmuch as our choices and considerations are obvious or reasonably surmisable.

This leads us to the:

Moral Consequences of the Three Immutable Laws of Humanity

1. We need to do our fair share. When we fail to accept that we exist and we try to “check out”, not taking up our share of the burden of existence, we cause pain to other people who cannot cease their own existence, or ours. This is, of course, assuming we already accept that murder is wrong and suicide is, at best, a risky experiment.

2. We need to seek consent in (almost) all things. The universal principle of The Golden Rule stems not just from empathy but also practicality. If I hurt someone, there is a good chance that they will hurt me back. If I keep hurting people, I will be cast out of the tribe and I will then have a harder time surviving. We seek consent not only because we want to also be free to act only when we feel inspired to, but also because it’s the only thing that works well long term. If we force people to do anything, through shame, manipulation, or guilt, it either doesn’t work, or it produces more problems down the road. I think the only exception for when it’s okay to use force is when people are hurting other people and kind and ethical methods of getting them to stop won’t work. It’s okay to step in to protect vulnerable people. (It’s also okay sometimes, though, to let them protect themselves.)

3. It’s unfair to morally judge people for where they are at. We are so vulnerable to making dramatic, fear-based connections that start at Uncomfortable Event X, then end at We’re All Gonna Die Or At Least I’m Gonna Die. For example, our boss seems upset with us, we decide we’re probably going to be fired, we won’t be able to get a good job soon enough in this economy, we will stay with friends who will eventually kick us out when we grow so depressed that we don’t try hard enough to find work, we become homeless, we can’t get out of the cycle, and we die on the street. Something like that.

And because this road has been travelled so many times by our brains, from the time we were little, maybe without even putting language to it and just having a feeling, we know every turn, every pothole so well that we can navigate it in the dark while sleepwalking. We make these downward spiral mental journeys without even realizing it. Everyone does this to some degree, sometimes, and it’s unfair to expect people to not do this thing we all do because our limbic systems, our animal brains, are just trying to take care of us. It’s unfair to expect a person who is so captured by fear and anxiety, to act rationally. To them, they’re being totally rational with bad math, misjudging percentages of likelihood for an event.

In addition to our trying not to die every day, we’re trying to avoid any pain, seeking pleasure instead. Pleasure signifies that we’ve successfully avoided danger, we can relax, we can thrive and grow and become strong. Potent stuff. In order to get people to choose something painful over something pleasurable, they need to have the math for risks vs. rewards work out in their favour.

The equation looks something like this:

And because there are considerations we can’t know or anticipate, we’re in no logical or fair place to judge someone else’s decision making. Every time someone makes a decision, they are impacted by:

  • the people in their lives we have never met
  • their future ambitions
  • their past failures they don’t want to repeat
  • the unpredictable and upsetting ways other people have reacted to them
  • their programming from childhood
  • their microbiome in their gut that helps control their hormones and thus mood
  • the weather
  • the music around them and memories it triggers
  • a movie they watched recently that bothered them
  • the advertising they saw on the way to work and how it impacted their self-image
  • how much sleep they got

The list is probably endless.

And while we can make some educated guesses about how people will act and what they’ll want, based on things we know about The Three Immutable Laws of Humanity, and based on what we know about most people in general, or about how they’ve acted in the past, we can also be way off in our estimations based on the thousands of things we don’t know.

We need to have humility before that. We need to allow ourselves to be confused and stay confused. Because not only do we not have access to other people’s decision-making calculations, we don’t have a right to know such intimate and sometimes inexplicable information. Sometimes people don’t even know themselves why they feel the way they do, why they act the way they do, but we can be certain that some sophisticated calculations have taken place by the most sophisticated machine on earth—the brain—using the best information and conclusions on hand by that person. Their conclusions are not our conclusions. They might, for example, have a fear of spiders that we don’t have, and that’s why they don’t want to walk a certain way to a destination but they don’t even know why. But their brain, so smart, surveys an alleyway and pattern-matches it to a time that an alleyway like that had some scary spiders there.

With all of the possibilities for why people do what they do, what sense does it make to try to judge? All that matters is that people ALWAYS make rational-for-them decisions. If we could omnipotently know their brains’ calculations, we’d have been able to perfectly predict the decisions they would make. It’s just a question of math.

Understanding all of this leads to incredibly freeing, positive outcomes.

  1. We blame people less.
  2. We show mercy.
  3. We live in a state of humble confusion, but peaceably because,
  4. we accept that things cannot be any other way. It’s impossible.
  5. We take less credit for our own decisions and accomplishments because we are just as much as anyone victims or benefactors to our own experiences, and we don’t get to choose what stimuli come into our lives to affect us.

As we accept and internalize all of these understandings, we can feel upset about circumstances without specifically judging anyone in particular. Having these tools to refrain from judgment comes in handy when we want to like someone who has done something we don’t like.

Which brings us to the downside of understanding and internalizing these ideas: We realize that free will is a grand illusion.

Now, from my experience talking with tens of people about this, I would guess that most people do believe that we have free will and that they find the argument against free will to be deeply disturbing. If we don’t have free will, we are just computers operating in a deterministic world, without good or evil, and therefore we earn no rewards in Heaven. (Daniel Dennett suggests that telling people they have no free will is dangerous because one experiment showed that people who were told they have no free will were more likely to cheat. This is faulty logic because it proves only one specific scenario. There has been no experiment that has shown what happens when we tell people that they don’t have free will but they still impact people in ways that cause them pain and that causing people pain can end up hurting them too.)

There’s no grand point to what we do, unless the qualia of life, the experience, is enough. The illusion that we have free will is still so powerful that it doesn’t really change our experience. A sunset is just as beautiful either way, being loved and treasured still feels wonderful, and when we still feel pleasure and happiness when we do something great, we just maybe put less ego into it.

Experience for its own sake must be valuable enough because we take it into account when we try to save the lives of animals. My friend Lisa recently saved the life of a squirrel caught by her dog. Why did she do that? Was that single squirrel so necessary to the ecosystem? Did it have a very important meeting to attend? As my partner and I were trying to decide when to put our dog Penny “to sleep”, I made the point that it was cruel to make an animal live through old age and likely pain we can’t know, just to have more time with them, and that by putting Penny down, we weren’t circumventing her from reaching any major life goals. Penny wasn’t going to cure cancer. Penny wasn’t launching a business and didn’t need to write her will. It really didn’t matter to me whether she died on a Tuesday or a Thursday, except for the burden it was on me as her primary caregiver, and the loss of her wouldn’t hurt any less if she lived two more days, or even thirty. So, my rational decision-making calculation with all of my particular inputs and values worked out to, “I might as well hurry up in feeling this loss because it will feel exactly the same no matter what, and at least my life can be easier sooner if we put her down sooner.” It was a major point of contention where we could not see each other’s views at all. But then the decision came down to wanting Penny to be able to have as many experiences as she could until she seemed to express a lack of interest in having more experiences (the trick here is for an owner to be able to see past their own needs to recognize their pet’s feelings). Without being able to articulate how it possibly mattered at all, I, too, found myself wanting to make sure that Penny had some good final experiences. I wanted to feed her burgers and take her to the ocean. Why? Where do those experiences disappear to?

I don’t know much about physics and I’m inclined to believe that there’s no real purpose to our lives. All I know is that I exist, I want to experience as much as I can, and that I wanted our dog to experience more, too. And when we want something badly, when we feel compelled toward it, it’s a sign that it has some important value, even if we don’t understand what that is.

We can try to create meaning out of Life and Death and all the cruelties in between, as Victor Frankl suggests in Man’s Search for Meaning. Certainly, we want to. But when we do, we create a very big problem. In our selfishness to believe something that comforts us, we wind up believing something that hurts others— that there’s meaning to their pain, which is not for us to decide and is absolutely impossible to determine. It wouldn’t be so bad if we just kept this thinking to ourselves and didn’t act from it, but that’s not what happens. When we believe things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” and especially when we attribute specific meaning and value to other people’s hardships or experiences, we don’t feel so compelled toward improving conditions around them. We might even blame them or judge them from not recovering faster from their traumas.

Certainly, we can find benefits in our own lives from hard experiences. We can derive personal meaning from anything. But we can’t logically or ethically do this for others because they aren’t living their lives with the exact same ingredients with which we’re living ours.

All we can conclude is that life is here to experience and for all its hardships, and sometimes even due to them, life is beautiful.

If we can’t have, or shouldn’t have, or don’t have the crutch of religion or spiritual beliefs about an afterlife to make meaning out of life, we can at least experience pleasure and make art.

I don’t know why I exist but I do know that I can alleviate the pain of others, or try not to cause it. Because I have felt so much of it myself and so deeply to the point that death made more sense than this absurd and hard life, I long to use my life to alleviate pain. I long to bring people together for this purpose, to learn together and change the world together by changing conditions enough that the people around us feel inspired, rather than compelled, to join us in our cause. The goal is to experience more pleasure. We have enough wealth amongst us to meet everyone’s needs and everyone has a gift to share, even if it’s just learning by their example how we don’t want to operate.

We have to first believe that pleasure is enough reason to exist, that no one deserves pain and that the world is not served by anyone feeling pain, that everyone is literally doing the best they can, and that for the world to change, all it takes is enough small groups of people to believe that things can change, and to change the conditions enough that even people who don’t want to cooperate will do so.

While that’s happening and not at all appearing to work, while things are still painful, we can take our pain and set it to violin music that haunts a person. We can slather our streets with colour.

We can dance; create absurd performance art; create emotionally disturbing, amazing performance art; make drum songs; write poetry that soothes hundreds of thousands of people; or make millions of ceramic sunflower seeds. We leave our stories behind in art. We can be healed by art. We can make love and art.

If we make a foundation of these things we can know to be true, it can lead us to true communion with people that is respectful, patient, humble, open, productive, emergent, creative, peaceful, and happy.

Stalk a normal amount