The Roots of Violence

October 8, 2017

Sadly, I find myself writing yet another post following an act of horrible violence in this country. The Las Vegas shooting took place almost a week ago and it’s taken nearly as long for me to get my head around what I want to say. After the shock, sadness, and anger have settled in to a dull acceptance of a completely avoidable tragedy, as a nation we get to watch the same old rinse and repeat cycle – an outraged public, an impotent government bought and paid for by the firearms industry offering “thoughts and prayers”, and an army of internet and media warriors opining on gun control, the second amendment, domestic terrorists, and mental health. But if the unfortunate recent history of mass shootings in this country have taught us anything, it’s tragically unlikely that anything will change.

The problem is, none of these things address the real issue. The problem is violence, not guns. Don’t get me wrong, guns make violence exponentially easier to inflict upon others and we should certainly be taking steps to keep them out of the hands of those who wish harm to others, but the root of the issue has always been the violence itself. Violence is an existential problem; it’s part of our current human condition. That’s not to say that violence is an inevitable or unavoidable aspect of life, however, in our current state of human evolution, it is a given that we must learn to understand and address head-on if we are ever to move past it.

Philosophers and psychologists have written countless volumes of the nature and origins of violence; but in my view violence boils down to one thing – Stress. Stress always has been and always will be the fertile breeding ground for violence. No stress, no violence.

In very simple terms, stress is the feeling of inescapable pressure, tension, and anxiety created when our needs are not met. It arises from the perception of a physical, psychological, or emotional threat. The perception of stress activates what we know as the fight or flight response, a biologically hard-wired response of our autonomic nervous system. The fight or flight response is a survival mechanism designed to prepare our system for violent action; by either running away from the threat or engaging it in combat. Our primitive ancestors needed the fight or flight response to keep them alive in an inherently dangerous environment. Once activated, they fought or ran away, effectively discharging the stress. Those survivors lived longer than those who didn’t and passed their genes on to their offspring, generation after generation.

We have inherited the stress/fight or flight response from our ancient ancestors, but unlike them, we typically don’t live in an inherently dangerous environment. Yes, we may experience occasional threats to our survival, but for those of us who aren’t in the military, law enforcement, or other dangerous line of work, the chances of experiencing a life threatening situation are relatively low.

However, that doesn’t stop us from activating the fight or flight response between 8-15 times a day. Traffic jams, work deadlines, family arguments, the political/ideological climate, social issues/injustice, grief, depression, and anxiety can all trigger the fight or flight response and the resulting chemical cascade that switches our physiology into survival mode. Unlike our ancestors though, we don’t typically burn off the excess stress through combat or running away. Instead, we stuff the stress deep within, bottling it up like a powder keg primed to blow.

Sadly, this is the norm for the vast percentage of our population. Chronic and acute stress are facts of life that most of us have come to accept as normal and unavoidable.

This is a lie.

Stress is not normal, nor is it healthy. Not for your body, mind, or emotions. In fact, nearly all illnesses are either directly influenced or made worse by stress. It puts incredible pressure on our mental state. In fact, prolonged exposure to the stress response dampens our ability to think clearly, make rational and well reasoned decisions, or understand the consequences of our choices. We’re conditioned to perceive the world as a dangerous and perpetually threatening environment. In essence, we’re reduced to scared, anxious, little animals, twitching in the bushes, ever ready to run away or leap out to attack our perceived foe. We shoot first and ask questions later – if at all.

Considering that so many people are locked into this state day in and day out, it comes as little surprise that we’re killing ourselves. With so much stress, our natural human tendency toward compassion, goodwill, kindness, and mutual cooperation has been overwritten with a new paradigm; kill or be killed. Think about how you behave whenever you feel threatened. Do you think about the welfare or feelings of others? Are you open to other opinions, ideas, or perspectives? Do you look for opportunities to help or serve your fellow human beings?

Nope.

When stress and fight or flight rules, we live in a closed feedback loop of fear, paranoia, anger, resentment, projection, hatred, and simmering rage. We look out for number 1, and will rigidly oppose anything or anyone who stands in the way of what we perceive to be our territory.

This is why we’ve seen such a spike in violence of all kinds over the last few decades. Life becomes exponentially more stressful every year and we all are caught in its trap. Most have no outlet for their suffering and it comes out in domestic violence, road rage, political and ideological discourse, physical altercations, civilian/police interactions, escalating up to international conflicts and all out war.

Stress therefore is the physical, mental, and emotional foundation of any mass shooter or terrorist. A terrified, incredibly insecure, caveman who is desperate to find an outlet for the stress and anxiety that is ripping him apart from the inside out. But wait, you might say. Some of these guys don’t seem like frightened little animals, they seem like cold, calculated, and relentless killers without a hint of stress anxiety, or remorse. They planned out their attacks with clearly thought out, premeditated calculus.

True. But what got them to that point was the overwhelming stress that narrowed their vision and made the choice to kill scores of innocent people seem like a viable option. Once they decided on a course of horrible action, their stress had an outlet, but it was still the underlying cause nonetheless. The Vegas shooter didn’t “snap” on October 1, 2017 when he fired into the crowd. The snap happened long before, triggering a series of events that led up to the actual shooting. The stress is never truly relieved however. It’s still a crushing force that in many cases, after feeling he has no way out of his suffering, causes the shooter to take his own life in the end.

If stress isn’t managed then, both at the individual level and the collective level of our society the violence and mass killings are unlikely to stop. Our paradigm must shift if things are to change. Changing paradigms isn’t an easy sell, though. Our collective consciousness is deeply rooted in the fight or flight and reactive responses of our nervous system. With so many of us scared and on edge the notion of opposing force with force seems like the only option. Now more than ever, with a commander in chief who hurls violent and incendiary Twitter rants at his perceived enemies, we live in a society of hair trigger stress reactivity. We’ve come to believe the only way to achieve peace is through superior firepower. How often have we heard in the wake of a mass shooting, “The only thing capable of stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”?

This is a prehistoric mentality that justifies force vs force to subdue our opponent. It might be effective in the short run, but it doesn’t ever really address the cause of the problem. Violence begets more violence in an unending cycle; and in our modern age we’re not talking about hurling spears and stones at each other but rather bone shattering, organ rupturing pieces of metal fired from high powered, rapid firing, instruments of mass destruction with high capacity magazines.

For those readers who study the martial arts, you’ve undoubtedly heard the maxim to never oppose force with force. This is a practical recommendation for energy and technique efficiency, but also a core strategic principle for winning the battle with as little conflict as possible. Physics tells us that meeting force with force wastes enormous amounts of energy and the resulting energy leakage can contribute to collateral damage to the larger system. In other words, force against force just doesn’t work. It’s a caveman strategy causing more harm than good in the long run.

What therefore is the answer to the epidemic of violence? How do we dial down the stress response so we can live lives of peace with each other?

In one word, meditation.

Meditation is the most reliable, the most researched and time tested tool we have at our disposal to reduce the effects of stress on our nervous systems. Meditation, simply put, is the antidote to stress.

Countless and ongoing studies have demonstrated repeatedly the effects of meditation to reverse the effects of the fight or flight response. It calms the nervous system and replaces the fight or flight response with the “rest and digest” response. It helps to flush the primary stress chemicals of cortisol and adrenaline of the system. It changes brainwaves to a more orderly and coherent state. And most importantly, it shifts our perception away from a fearful survival mentality to one of calm safety and security.

Meditation goes to the heart of the matter. It’s not about policy, laws, or taking away anybody’s guns. It’s about healing the stress that is ripping this country apart. It is the equivalent of not opposing force with force. It is the most effective tool we have for evolving our paradigm from “survival of the fittest” to “survival of the wisest.”

Meditation works. It’s not as glamorous as double tapping the bad guy in the head, but if more people are meditating, there will be fewer bad guys in the first place.

Don’t believe me? Consider this:

Meditation programs have been introduced in inner city schools with a history of violence and have completely changed the culture, leading to a drop off in violence and an upswing in student engagement and performance.

Meditation programs have been introduced in hospitals, improving recovery time, pain management, and providing overall stress relief.

Meditation programs have been introduced in the workplace resulting in improved performance, enhanced work-life balance, stress management and overall mindfulness.

Meditation programs have been introduced into police departments, helping to better manage stress, foster a deeper sense of purpose, and create an improved bond with their communities.

Meditation programs have been introduced into the military, helping service men and women cope with the realities of combat, manage PTSD, and enhance overall performance.

And meditation programs have been introduced in prisons, leading to improved inmate rehabilitation, reduction in violence, a deeper sense of purpose, stress reduction, and improved reintegration into society upon release.

Meditation has also been repeatedly demonstrated to show that when a large enough number of people are meditating in a given community, not only the meditators receive the stress relieving benefits themselves, but those benefits also carry over into the larger community of non meditators.

If meditation can have these results within these localized populations imagine what it could do for our society if practiced on a large scale. Not only would individuals relieve the stress that is disrupting their lives, but all of society would begin to heal and benefit from the increase in group coherence.

It’s long past time to recognize that what we’ve been doing to address the violence in our nation isn’t working. “Thoughts and prayers” aren’t working. The fruitless battle for gun reform isn’t working. Federal and local law enforcement investigation, intervention, and interception of mass shooting suspects isn’t working. People are dying from mass shootings every month. The dead will be buried and mourned for, but what will have changed? Sadly, on our current snails paced learning curve, nothing will have changed. Is it not time for a different approach, one that addresses the cause of the problem of violence itself? If not now, when will it be the time? After the next shooting? Or the next? Or the next?

The pitiful truth is that the time for change was literally years ago. And our own lack of courage to change has always been the only thing holding us back.

Many of us feel helpless whenever we hear of another mass shooting or terrorist attack. We’re not helpless. At the very least, take the step into the future of humanity by refusing to contribute to the collective field of stress in our country. Share the idea with your friends and family. Learn to meditate or join a local meditation group. Deprive stress of of the chance to grow within you. It’s the most potent tool we have for correcting our course away from another senseless tragedy.

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