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The Inner Superpower That Makes Us Human

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Our family had a cat named Princess, who at some point developed a fear of the front lawn. She would never quite walk across it. Instead she would creep up to its edge, wide-eyed and serious, then dart across.

My dad guessed she had once been in the wrong place when the sprinkler came on. Like most cats, Princess found it excruciating to be touched by any amount of water, unless it was her idea. A single raindrop would send her fleeing for cover, yet she would also wait at the bathroom door for you to emerge from your shower, then push past you to investigate the leftover puddles.

A cat’s non-negotiable stance towards involuntarily touching water illuminates what might be the most important difference between humans and other animals: we can overcome our own reactivity. We can learn what our impulses are, reflect on whether they’re helpful, and practice not always acting on them.

We can learn to suspend judgment, for example, even when our impulse is to hate or blame a person. We can practice being generous, even when we fear not having enough for ourselves. We can learn to save the cookie for later even if we want it now.

This is the Great Ability that makes us human. It was undoubtedly a game-changer when we figured it out we had it, because human cultures have made a huge deal about it. There’s a reason our religions emphasize resisting temptation, practicing generosity, not having sex whenever you feel like it, not stealing even when no one’s looking, not clawing at people just because they annoy you, and otherwise not being an animal.

Our news stories revolve around about people succeeding or failing at the Great Ability. Bosses exploiting their subordinates for pleasure or personal gain. Health care workers saving lives despite the risk to their own well-being. Did the politician make the hard, counter-impulsive “right” choice, or the easy and tempting wrong choice? If it’s about the Great Ability, it’s compelling to us.

Animals can’t reflect on their instincts and conditioning, so they are bound to act them out. No matter how many errant raindrops or timer-operated sprinklers a cat encounters, it will never have the brilliant idea to allow the water to seep down and touch its skin, and see whether the resulting sensation is indeed the end of the world.

Because you’re human, you have the Great Ability, and every moment is a chance to strengthen it. You can practice opening up to experiences your instincts reject, and stepping back from experiences your instincts draw you towards.

When I started as a land surveyor, I quickly discovered how much easier the job gets when you embrace inevitable discomforts like coldness and dampness instead of resenting them. At first, you can’t help but despise aggressive gusts of wind and cold raindrops running down your neck. But when you learn to open your nerves to these feelings, they stop causing you suffering and inhibiting your work.

Human spiritual traditions have always prescribed methods for improving the Great Ability — mostly in the form of long lists of what not to do. But they also offered what we can call “contemplative practices,” which usually have to do with radically opening to experience – surrendering to God/Truth/What Is, rather than succumbing to impulse.

My experience with one such practice, mindfulness, was the only reason it even occurred to me to embracethe rain and cold. When I teach people mindfulness practice, this openness to experience is what’s being practiced. You’re learning to let the raindrops strike you, along with the subsequent urge to shudder or flee, without trying to experience anything but exactly what’s happening.

And the raindrops are everywhere. The most basic version of the practice is to simply sit down somewhere, and notice what it feels like just to sit there. Everyone quickly discovers there’s something unpleasant about even that. There may be weird and gross feelings in the body, restlessness in the legs, random mental chatter, and urges to do something more interesting.

If you were going by impulse, you’d immediately get up and forget the whole stupid thing. This is what Princess would do, and all she could do.

Of course, the point of the exercise is to develop the Great Ability by practicing the opposite of what Princess would do. Being human, you can choose to meet the weird or difficult experience, discover that it has a location and texture, and – for a few seconds at a time – feel it fully, without succumbing to reactivity.  

Depending on how willing a person is to take this experiment seriously, they will at some point discover why human beings have made such a big deal of the Great Ability. To the degree you can meet experience exactly as it is, without resentment, it ceases to cause you suffering and drive your behavior.

You can see how strengthening the Great Ability like this might completely open up your life, empowering you to do right by yourself and by others, in ways you couldn’t previously.

Difficult conversations could be had instead of avoided. Rewards could be more easily delayed, and goals more easily achieved. Lawns could be crossed without fear. When you’re strong in the Great Ability, neither rain nor sleet nor sprinkler can drive you away from doing what you think is right.

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The Great Ability can also help you relax, if you can get better at opening up to how your body feels.

I’m about to hold a new session of Mindfulness For Relaxation (a.k.a. Camp Calm Relax).

I teach a simple practice similar to what’s described above – sitting comfortably, noticing what feeling arise, and relaxing into those feelings.

We’ll do a short session of relaxation practice daily for a few weeks. Once you get the hang of it, it’s a superpower you’ll have with you everywhere.

If you’re interested, get the info here.

***

Photo by Phil Goodwin

Three weeks to a more relaxed life

If you’re feeling wound up these days, I have something that can help.

I’m about to teach a group of your fellow readers an easy, do-anywhere mindfulness technique focused on cultivation relaxation and ease.

Come with us, and learn some relaxation skills for life.

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{ 23 Comments }

Irina September 11, 2020 at 2:25 am

Hi David,

Thanks so much for writing this post. Every time I get one in my inbox, I challenge myself to read the entirety of it without distractions. I don’t check my phone or switch to another tab partway through. When I have reached the end, I delete the email forever, and only whatever impression it made on me is left. It’s a ritual I cherish.
However, I haven’t been commenting very often. I’ve thought about this, and the truth is that I’m reluctant to comment or engage with things I find online because of a deep discomfort with participating in the attention economy, having my eyeballs sold to advertisers.
But I remind myself that you are a person writing these posts, irrespective of the system in which they exist. I value that and I want to offer you every encouragement to keep going. They make a difference. Thank you.

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David Cain September 11, 2020 at 9:34 am

Thanks Irina. I appreciate your making an exception to your usual way of internetting just to offer me encouragement. I hope you continue to enjoy.

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Ron September 11, 2020 at 2:34 am

Beautifully explicated, David. As S.N. Goenka put it, “The entire effort is to learn how not to react.”

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David Cain September 11, 2020 at 9:37 am

Right. What I appreciate about the mindfulness approach to the Great Ability is that it cuts right to the actual moment of reactivity. In other traditions, they focus on the behavioral manifestation of the reactivity (stealing, lust, etc). In mindfulness, they direct you to pay attention right to the moment in which desire and aversion arise, long before the domino-effect of behavior can even get going. It’s such a simple and sophisticated approach.

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Discovered Joys September 11, 2020 at 3:23 am

I enjoyed the post and it set me off on a tangential course. Cats are solitary animals and perhaps there is no benefit for them in being anything other than reactionary. Dogs are pack animals so perhaps there is some benefit in restraining their reactions.

People are different… essentially troop animals that developed into a conformist clan/tribe structure. But recently some of those humans developed a more individual style using the Great Ability. They are mostly WEIRD, that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. So perhaps the Great Ability is possessed by all humans, but to a greater or lesser extent.

There’s a recent book I have not yet read “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous” which proposes such a difference. I expect at least some of what it describes is true, but how much?

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David Cain September 11, 2020 at 9:46 am

Cats and dogs are different from each other, definitely, but I don’t think any animals are capable of reflecting on their impulses. Animals can be trained, and show restraint, such as a dog waiting for the owner’s command before eating the treat on its nose. But that’s just more conditioning — it’s not the same as reflection on impulses versus greater goals.

WEIRDness has certainly moved us away from interdependent tribal living, but evolution works very slowly, and reactivity has been there since long before anything even walked on land. The rise of religion and culture around the great ability is definitely a response to our extremely social nature. We are better off in societies in which people refrain from doing certain anti-social things, like stealing and killing, so it makes sense that self-regulation of behavior would become a thing people would talk about and encourage.

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Rich September 11, 2020 at 4:28 am

I also found this article helpful. I was able to find some calm, but I can’t really notice sensations. I will keep practicing.

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David Cain September 11, 2020 at 9:51 am

This is what meditation techniques are for. Typically, you start with a very obvious sensation (the breath or another bodily feeling) and practice feeling it without trying to change, suppress, or improve it. By doing that regularly, you gain a greater sensitivity to it and other sensations. Eventually you can detect extremely subtle sensations, such as the tiny changes in emotional tone that happen when you’re reading or listening to someone talk. Once you’re aware of these sensations, you can practice allowing them to come and go. It’s a process of gradually increasing your awareness of the sensations that make up your life, and learning to observe each one without interfering.

Different techniques have you working with different sensations in different ways, but they all get to the same skills eventually.

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kruidigmeisje September 11, 2020 at 6:26 am

After 3 burnouts I must admit that my reaction to my feelings is sometimes not too quick (darting across the lawn) but too slow (walking across a lawn for so many miles, my feet and legs are really sore but I keep walking to attain some goal). So I have this balance problem: feelings should be felt, and then acted upon WISELY. In balance. With an eye out to others, myself and the future.
Meditation still helps me a lot. But the balance thing keeps being real tricky, like any circus act or part of life.

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David Cain September 11, 2020 at 9:55 am

“Feelings should be felt, and then acted upon WISELY”

Yes, this is it. And obviously our first reaction is not always the wise one. Ideally, you’ll have an always-ongoing sensitivity to even the subtlest sensations, and accept them in real time with no reactivity, acting only from wisdom. Many traditions indicate that this is attainable, and they call it enlightenment, awakening, transcendence, rapture, and many other things.

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Ginzo September 11, 2020 at 7:55 am

One of the strangest things about this ‘non-reactivity’ is that we usually don’t come up with it on our own (unless we sit under a tree and are buddha). Once someone opens our inner eyes to it; we can have the recognition of, ‘oh, yes, I see how that works’. And it sheds light on our human behavior patterns. So perhaps this non-reactive viewpoint is the next step in our evolution. Humans have got really good at survival, literally conquering (screwing-up) nature, ability to fight the tribal wars on a global scale, and reproducing like rabbits. But that’s not the endpoint. We have many journeys ahead and non-reactivity can help us find our way.

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David Cain September 11, 2020 at 10:07 am

Yes! It is counter-intuitive in the extreme.

I’m really interested in whether this was one person’s insight, which spread, or if it was discovered by multiple people at different times. It’s definitely present in the Abrahamic traditions and the Vedic ones, and I’m not sure how those influenced each other. Did the Buddha influence Christ? Did someone influence both? There are answers to these questions but I’m not sure we’ll ever know them.

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Erika Coburn September 11, 2020 at 8:08 am

I loved this article…..thank you for sharing and I love how you remind us of this Great Ability, our “superpower” that we posses. Not to react, but to pro act as I call it. I really appreciate your articles and your insight. I’ve been reading your articles for around ten years now and I always look forward to your emails. Thank you again!

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David Cain September 11, 2020 at 10:09 am

Wow you’re from the old school. Thanks for reading Erika.

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Patrick Byrne September 11, 2020 at 8:58 am

Always a welcomed surprise to find an email from you when I wake up. Thank you for taking the time to write thoughtful, illuminating content.

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David Cain September 11, 2020 at 10:16 am

Thank you sir!

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Sondra Bayz September 11, 2020 at 10:35 am

David, thank you for expressing this essential wisdom in such a fresh and memorable way. The Great Human Ability. I will remember Princess hovering around the edges of that lawn when I avoid challenging tasks, allowing my fears to block out memories of successful previous encounters. I couldn’t help but think of Victor Frankl’s words—“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Mindfulness or meditation strengthens that power to choose.

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David Cain September 15, 2020 at 9:37 am

Yes, great example. I believe the Great Ability is essentially creating (or recognizing) the space Frankl describes, and then skillfully acting in that space.

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Martin September 12, 2020 at 3:04 pm

So beautifully and simply written, blessings and thank you David!

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Beth September 13, 2020 at 3:47 am

Hi David, You’ve really written this well and engagingly. It’s such a key point to consider every day. It reminds us to navigate life in a ‘mindful’ way and helps us to tackle life’s challenges. We have choices and we often forget this. What outcome do we want to see ourselves to have taken at the end of the day? In every moment we are alive and every moment offers us options that make us grow – even as you say, in the little decisions.
Never doubt that by what you are doing in posting these thought-provoking conversations, that you are making a difference in people’s lives. Every day when I interact with friends, I remember your one post about focusing on your friend’s enjoyment of the occasion … about when you meet up with a friend, making that occasion special for them so that it’s a memorable and enjoyable time. It really helps to get me past my own self-absorption.

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David Cain September 15, 2020 at 9:41 am

Thanks Beth. For years I have *really* struggled with choosing blog topics, not because I have any shortage of ideas, but because different people resonate with different things and I don’t want to bore/alienate people who aren’t into a given post’s topic. I’m pleased to say I’m getting over this conflict by just going with what is most interesting to me, and writing it just for the people who will find it helpful. I’m glad to hear that’s working.

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Pebbles September 13, 2020 at 4:37 am

Beautifully put as usual David. I listened to an Alan Watts lecture the other day around this subject, and the essence of it was that sitting in No Thing Ness like Buddha is great for resetting everything, but retreating completely from life is not where it’s at. It’s about practicing and planning courses of actions, and forgetting it all and just acting spontaneously in the moment, and beware of meditation becoming contrived. I’ve not done it justice here with my rambling style, but it made sense to me at the time. The act of attempting to do nothing becomes doing something.

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David Cain September 15, 2020 at 9:46 am

Hey Pebbles.

I think I know what he’s getting at. One common criticism of contemplative practice is built on the misapprehension that it’s a withdrawal from life. As you know, it’s the opposite of that — it’s the most direct way to turn towards reality, without the usual diversions of self-distraction, self-comfort, and ideology. This direct contact with reality prepares you to act in the world on a moral level, as free as possible from those diversions. Because you’re practicing a certain unflinching openness towards all physical and mental experiences, you will not be as easily diverted by temptation towards what’s comforting but counterproductive, or aversion towards what’s challenging but productive. My dissolving the “drive-shaft” between reactivity and behavior, meditation allows you to act as morally as possible in the world.

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