Adapting to Our Environment

My recent travels to view polar bears in their natural habitat combined with a talk by Rick Hanson inspired an insight that continues to capture my attention. While out on the tundra, our guide shared with us how plants and animals adapted to survive such harsh conditions. For example, a female polar bear will mate with one or more polar bears but, only after mating, will her body produce an egg. Her body will then delay the egg's fertilization until her body has enough fat to handle the demands of pregnancy. Viewing polar bears up close and learning about their behaviors made me realize how I, too, adapted to the demands of the environment in which I was raised. Adaptation stems from the late Latin word adaptare, which means to adjust. While watching snowflakes collect on a polar bear, a core Buddhist teaching came into sharp focus - "Everything arises out of causes and conditions." Adaptations arise from a need to survive and thrive. We, humans, are no different. Causes and conditions shape our habits and perceptions. Many of us may have adapted our behavior, consciously or unconsciously, to help us survive challenging, chaotic and/ or harmful environments.

Adaptation was still fresh on my mind when I continued my studies in positive neuroplasticity with Rick Hanson. In one of the lectures, Rick Hanson drew a chart that illustrated what happens when our authentic self-expression is met with a dreaded experience. For example, imagine a little kid is asked for his honest opinion. He gives his honest opinion only to be whacked by his parent. Do you think he would risk being honest again? Probably not. He would adapt his authentic self-expression (being honest) to avoid being slapped (expectation of dreaded experience) and as a result be more guarded. This guarding is what psychologists call defense against expression. Rick Hanson went on to say, "We avoid risking the experience we most want." We want to be honest but it can be too painful to take that risk since speaking honestly could be met with a slap, a rejection, a belittling laugh etc. This is a simplistic view of how we adapt our behavior, which can affect the decisions we make and how we live. However, it's not all doom and gloom.

Rick Hanson continued to say in the lecture, "Identify that there is a defense against taking in the food you long for. Very often the experiences we need and long for most are the ones we most defend against because they were the ones most associated with pain." For example, if we long to feel connected, take in those moments of feeling cared for and connected. They don't have to be grand moments. Maybe someone genuinely asked you how your day was going or held the door open for you. Maybe a dog on the street saw you and began wagging his tail. No moment of feeling seen and connected is too small to absorb and in doing so you begin to erode the defenses that built up over the years.

Stay tuned for more photos of polar bears and the tundra! I hope to have them posted by the end of the week.