Mindfulness and the extended phenotype

OK, so I’ve done some research and had a good read of the content in the various other contributions to this blog and I believe I am now in a much stronger position to move forward in my journey into mindfulness. I also listened to some of the Yoga Nidra for Divers, but unfortunately my attention span was not up to the full 15 minutes. Small steps. As I sit here and write this, I am doing my very best to consider my posture (which is unfortunately a little hunched due to the fact that my laptop is on a low coffee table) and my breathing (which is occurring on a regular basis). I’ve also had a chance to put some of my mindfulness training into action whilst doing some forestry work this week, namely halo clearing some veteran oaks for a nearby stately home.

The process of halo clearing involves the felling and clearing of fast growing tree species (blackthorn, sycamore, elder) from around slow growing target species (mostly beech and oak) to allow the target species to establish. The estate where I am working stipulates that the felled trees must be cut into smallish pieces, so as not to impede the beaters and shooters on their frequent pheasant massacres, which bring in a substantial income for the owners. In order to carry out this work in an expedient manner, one often finds oneself clambering over fallen branches and brash, swinging one’s chainsaw and consequently falling over. After several days of halo clearing, I noticed that my colleague, who is vastly more experienced in this line of work than myself, took a slightly different approach to falling over than myself. Whenever I saw him crumple to his knees, or take a face plant, he would let out a little laugh before pulling himself to his feet. This was in stark contrast to the angry burst of expletives which would immediately follow my tumbles. Could this be an example of mindfulness? By controlling the release of emotional energy in a positive way, after a negative experience, has my colleague attained some state of enlightenment, freed himself from suffering? I decided to give it a go and excitedly looked forward to my next moment of misfortune. I didn’t have to wait long.

Ten minutes later I was felling a pretty large black thorn. The tree’s trunk was curved at the bottom, like a dirty, bent Grecian pillar and its canopy was knotted into an even larger oak above. Unfortunately, as I finished hacking away at the base, the tree fell forwards, then pirouetted unexpectedly and toppled towards me. I ran like hell, covered a few yards, then crumpled as a mass of branches and thorns came down on my head. My first thought was surprise – one of the ear defenders on my helmet had been ripped off, but apart from a few cuts I was relatively uninjured. Then I remembered my mindfulness training and let out a little ha ha. I then realised my chainsaw was still running on top of my leg, so I took a moment to switch it off. Then I got back to my laughing. I must admit it felt a bit forced to begin with, but after a spell I was really quite enjoying myself and by the time I was ready to start cutting myself out of my spiky new home I was deliriously happy. The mindfulness really did seem to be doing the job.

tree trunks moss

I got home later that day feeling pretty upbeat and as I sat on the couch pulling the thorns from my hands and arms, I wondered how far it might be possible to go with this mindfulness thing. I was minded of Dawkins’ extended phenotype concept. For those who haven’t an interest in genetics, a quick lesson: a genotype is the hereditary material possessed by an organism which has been passed down from it’s parents (i.e. DNA); a phenotype is the resulting expression of those genes on the physical form of the organism (e.g. blue eye colour); Dawkins proposes that we should also consider the impact an organism has on its environment as a crucial consideration in evolutionary thought, since this will also play an important part in its survival and ecological interaction. Examples of extended phenotypes might be physical, like termite mounds or skyscrapers. They might also be biological, either indirectly as with cuckoo chicks, which elicit intensive feeding from their host parents to sustain themselves, or directly, a good example of which is provided by the Gordian Worm. Gordian worms need water in order to breed, but since they spend the bulk of their adult life inhabiting the insides of terrestrial insects, such as crickets, which generally have a healthy fear of the water, they have evolved a rather cunning solution to their problem. Once our little worm has decided it’s ready for romance (or not so little – in its later stages the worm will make up as much as 50% of the cricket’s bodyweight), it will release neurotransmitters which essentially reverse the cricket’s behavioural norms, so that instead of maintaining its usual respectful distance from water, poor old Jiminy jumps right in. Great news for the worms which burst out of the cricket in an orgy of excitement; less good for their host, which generally perishes.

So, extended phenotypes.

But what’s the rub here? What has this to do with mindfulness? Well, if being mindful of what’s going on internally can benefit ourselves as individuals, maybe being mindful of our external interactions might benefit the world collectively. Is it possible to extend our approach to mindfulness not just along every sinew and synapse of our being but beyond, into our extended phenotypes?

This is a much more complex proposal than perhaps it first appears, since most individuals living in the western world will have phenotype extensions that penetrate far beyond that which can be seen, crossing borders and having profound effects on the lives of those with whom we share this planet. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is pensions.

In the UK we love our pensions. The bond is so deep and intimate that were William Wallace being eviscerated on the torture table today his final words might be, “You can take our lives but you’ll never take… OUR PENSIONS!” Many people are in fact so pension-centric that they appear to forego much of the enjoyment available in living in the moment in order to lump all their hopes and dreams into their pension plan. Combine this fondness for later life security banking with the fact that the British government recently introduced legislature which makes it pretty damn hard to not have a pension and you get the picture – pensions are big business and we’re almost all at it.

The problem though, is that very few of us are mindful about what happens with our pension investments and this unmindfulness can do great harm in the world. The fastest growing product on the pension market is the market tracker which essentially invests in the biggest companies on a stock market index, working on the assumption that these will be safe investments (worth $6 trillion last year worldwide). A large number of pension schemes in the UK will default to a market tracker, unless they are specifically directed otherwise, which means that unless you have done something about it, your pension is likely as not supporting the arms trade, oil and gas, gambling, tobacco and so on. (Paradoxically most of these unethical companies are increasingly seen by market experts as poor long-term investments and so not even profit can justify the market trends. A cynical person might suggest that the current FTSE 100 incumbents were involved in the push toward market trackers).

Even if you can be bothered to spend a little time searching for an ethical or eco-friendly trust and are willing to sacrifice some potential interest performance, appearances are frequently deeply deceptive in the world of pensions and investments. Legal and General’s ethical trust states in it’s opening blurb that it excludes investing in countries with poor human rights records, however this statement is qualified in the small print with this additional information “The ethical trust will exclude a company with operations in at least five countries in EIRIS Category A”. Therefore your ethical investment will still be invested in countries with the worst possible human rights records (i.e. Category A countries), but no more than four of them per company. Once again the oil and gas industry make an appearance (these guys are hard to avoid). This is a leading pension provider’s interpretation of an ethical fund. There are lots of other interesting interpretations of socially responsible language when you scratch beneath the surface of stocks and investments (including an eco-friendly pension which invested in weapons manufacturers, though it could be argued that reducing the human population could be good for the environment…).

The point is we’d all of us need to be the equivalent of Zen masters to be sufficiently mindful of our extended phenotypes to understand their impacts, let alone control them.

Still, small steps.

I’ve probably rambled along off piste for long enough and it’s time for me to get back to the Yoga Nidra for Divers, but I leave you with one last question to ruminate upon – if you drew up a sliding scale of mindfulness, would you put yourself on the end of the laughers or would you be with the Gordian Worms?