Monday, March 8, 2010

The Paleolithic Mind

I went to a meditation retreat this week with the Red Cedar Zen community in Bellingham. It was a good experience. Staring at a wall from 6 am to 9 pm for a few days gives you the opportunity to learn a few things about your mind. Some of these are things you already know on some level, but you just need to have them reinforced. For example, the weight of psychological stress that we carry in modern societies like the US. It's only when it goes away for a while that you can see how heavy it was.

I'm totally ignorant of the scientific literature on this, but the way I see it, there are at least two main sources of psychological stress in the modern world for which we aren't well equipped as human beings:
  • Being eternally and inescapably subordinate in a large social structure
  • Having too many responsibilities such as possessions and obligations
I recently read an excellent article by Michael Finkel in National Geographic magazine on the Hadza of Tanzania. The Hadza are a hunter-gatherer group living in a way that may resemble how our ancestors lived for most of the last million years. Here are a few characteristics of the Hadza lifestyle as described by the author:
The Hadza do not engage in warfare [although they do have homicide]. They've never lived densely enough to be seriously threatened by an infectious outbreak. They have no known history of famine; rather, there is evidence of people from a farming group coming to live with them during a time of crop failure. The Hadza diet remains even today more stable and varied than that of most of the world's citizens. They enjoy an extraordinary amount of leisure time. Anthropologists have estimated that they "work"—actively pursue food—four to six hours a day. And over all these thousands of years, they've left hardly more than a footprint on the land.
This isn't intended to idealize their lifestyle, but to point out that being a hunter-gatherer has its advantages. One of these is a minimal social structure in which each person is has full authority over himself:
The Hadza recognize no official leaders. Camps are tra­ditionally named after a senior male (hence, Onwas's camp), but this honor does not confer any particular power. Individual autonomy is the hallmark of the Hadza. No Hadza adult has authority over any other. None has more wealth; or, rather, they all have no wealth. There are few social obligations—no birthdays, no religious holidays, no anniversaries.
Even "marriage" doesn't carry much obligation. The author describes the Hadza as "serial monogamists". The idea of an eternal bond between two individuals doesn't exist. Women are not subordinate to men:
Gender roles are distinct, but for women there is none of the forced subservience knit into many other cultures. A significant number of Hadza women who marry out of the group soon return, unwilling to accept bullying treatment. Among the Hadza, women are frequently the ones who initiate a breakup—woe to the man who proves himself an incompetent hunter or treats his wife poorly. In Onwas's camp, some of the loudest, brashest members were women.
Contrast this with modern civilizations in which everyone has a boss-- whether it's at a job, in a marriage or under your country's legal system. I think this feeling of perpetual subordination is destructive to an animal such as ourselves, that has spent so much of its existence mostly free of these pressures.

The author says this about their possessions:
Traditional Hadza, like Onwas and his camp mates, live almost entirely free of possessions. The things they own—a cooking pot, a water container, an ax—can be wrapped in a blanket and carried over a shoulder.
This resembles other African hunter-gatherer groups that have few and simple tools. From the book The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society:
!Kung tools are few in number, lightweight, made from locally available materials, and multipurpose.
Again, this is in sharp contrast to the modern world, where we have so many belongings it's impossible to keep track of them all. We have giant houses that we "need" to store all these things, and still it doesn't seem like enough. Many of our possessions are indispensable if we want to fit in to society. We need (or feel we need) clothes, cookware, identification, money, transportation, furniture, tools, sports gear, et cetera. Having to be responsible for this extraordinary quantity of possessions (by evolutionary standards) is a heavy weight on our minds.

Unfortunately, we have more than just possessions on our minds. To live in the modern world is to be pricked to death by a thousand small responsibilities. Remember to make your lunch. Remember to make a doctor's appointment, shop for groceries, tie your shoes, get your oil changed, send that e-mail, make dinner, go for a jog, vacuum the floor, take a shower, pick up the kids-- the list is endless. Are our memories as defective as we think they are, or are we simply not designed to keep track of so many details?

In hunter-gatherer times, we had stress. Homicide, accidents, infectious disease and predation were always stalking us. But did we have a constant flow of obligations clogging the paths of our minds?

Those times are gone for us, but perhaps keeping them in mind can help us live more constructively in the modern world. I find that meditation helps keep the thousand pricks of modern life in perspective, perhaps bringing my mind closer to the paleolithic state.