Despite the Covid epidemic, last Wednesday’s assault on America’s Capitol building, the violence and the extreme polarization, the isolation from loved ones, the economic catastrophe befalling millions, I remain hopeful.
That may sound extraordinarily naïve, given that most of us are in the midst of the darkest night of the soul we will ever experience.
Radio 4 in the UK is about to air a reading and interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, marking the 700th anniversary of the death of the Italian poet, and as the BBC newsreader Katya Adler, who is hosting the event, reminds us, it begins with the famous lines that every Italian knows by heart: ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita.’
Or in English:
‘In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself astray in a dark wood where the straight road had been lost.’
Despite our present journey and even more difficult roads we know we are about to navigate, I am hopeful, largely because our current calamity is causing a massive brain rewiring among all of us – and all to the better.
I am fascinated by neuroplasticity – the ability of our brains to change, adapt and grow new neurons in response to need.
We are now learning that this happens with stroke victims, thanks to the work of the psychologist and behavioral neuroscientist Dr. Edward Taub, who discovered that after just 10 days of attempting to move a paralyzed limb, the brain would create an ‘enormous increase’ in gray matter, creating new neural connections to enable movement. And the more the affected limb was moved, the more new neurons would be created.
Other recent evidence shows what we’ve always suspected: people who are born blind make other neural connections to compensate for a lack of visual information, so that they develop a heightened sense of hearing, smell, touch and even cognitive function.
In the past, neuroscientists imagined the brain as something akin to a complex computer, which got fully constructed in adolescence.
But we now know that the brain revises itself throughout life, depending not simply on the nature of requirements to move about in our world, but also on the nature of our thoughts.
Certain sustained thoughts produce measurable physical differences and change its structure. Certain parts of our brains get larger, the more we think something.
For instance, Buddhist monks involved in compassionate meditation experience an increase in the ‘can I help you’ portion of their brains; even novice meditators practicing mindfulness meditation can increase activation of the ‘happy-thoughts’ part of the brain after just eight weeks.
What this means, quite simply, is the more we think a certain thought, the more embedded it becomes in our consciousnesses and, indeed, in our lives.
After all the extraordinary events of 2020 and this new year, I believe that we will undergo an enormous amount of brain rewiring, should we choose to focus on what is positive about our current experience.
Much like a blind person, now that we are deprived of so much ordinary activity – the-every-person-for-themselves, making-it-getting-it-and-spending-it cycle of the West’s daily diet – our brains will increasingly grow preoccupied with the things most essential to the continuation of our humanity.
In other words, we are developing a new stock market of values.
Our current situation is forcing us to move beyond the selfish and the material. Locked down in our homes, what do we need new stuff for? How many more tracksuit bottoms does any of us need?
We are beginning to recognize that two vital connections give our life meaning: a strong community connection, enabling us to share and give, and a strong spiritual connection.
Even in Dante’s Purgatory, which was depicted in the Divine Comedy as a waystation offering an opportunity to repent and change, the souls there demonstrate a need for both connections. Not only do they acknowledge their own wrongdoing, but they interact and even sing together.
What most distinguishes them from the souls in Hell is their ability to take responsibility for their own actions, and connect and share with others, rather than turning against others and blaming them for their current situation.
Hell, in Dante’s inferno, is not other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre maintained. Hell is an excessive focus on the self.
Now that we are forced to be isolated from our loved ones, it’s beginning to dawn on us that connection to others and that need for some sort of spiritual transcendence are the two non-negotiable values of our human experience.
When not satisfied, it can even lead to the kind of violence America experienced on Jan 6.
In The Biology of Transcendence, Joseph Chiltern Pierce wrote: “We actually contain a built-in ability to rise above restriction, incapacity, or limitation and, as a result of this ability, possess a vital adaptive spirit that we have not yet fully accessed. While this ability can lead us to transcendence, paradoxically it can lead also to violence; our longing for transcendence arises from our intuitive sensing of this adaptive potential and our violence arises from our failure to develop it.”
When so many of our freedoms have been removed, there is one simple power that no one can take away from you: your own extraordinary extended human potential, your transcendent ability to heal and be healed.
I have discovered one simple route to achieving an instant community and a connection to oneness and a higher spirit.
If you don’t have one already, I urge you to form a virtual Power of Eight group in 2021, where you will discover connection, spiritual transcendence and your own extraordinary adaptive power.
You can create one by asking for members in your time zone on my new Community site: www.community.lynnemctaggart.com, on my Facebook page Connecting and Healing through the Power of Eight, or as part of my year-long Power of Eight Intention Masterclass: https://lynnemctaggart.com/courses/intention-masterclass/the-power-of-8-intention-masterclass-2021/
Most of all, what a Power of Eight group offers you is hope.
In one of the world’s most beloved movies, The Shawshank Redemption, based on the Stephen King short story, Andy Dufresne, wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, spends 19 years patiently tunneling through the wall of his prison cell, covering the hole with his poster of Rita Hayworth, then clambering through a sewer pipe to freedom and a new life in Mexico.
He leaves money hidden for his prison buddy Red to join him, with the note: ‘Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.’
May you hold onto both hope and connection in 2021.