In one side of a Petri dish is a single amoeba, and in the other is a dab of toxic sludge. The amoeba, sensing the danger, moves away from the toxins. In an act of self-defence it contracts into itself, becoming smaller and more protected. This is a natural reaction when fear is present: to withdraw, close in and shrink. A natural reaction, but one that comes with a cost: in this tight, protected state the amoeba cannot ingest food, grow or reproduce: it is totally focused on survival. Even this tiniest of creatures arranges its priorities: survival before growth. Fear is the key: the perception of danger causes the amoeba to feel fear and thus contract.
Fractals are wonderful geometries of nature. In school you may have learned the Euclidian geometries of perfect shapes, but in the real world of nature, there are no perfect circles or squares, there are only fractals. A fractal is a pattern that repeats over and over again at all levels of awareness. If we look at a tree, we see its big branches dividing into smaller branches. If we look closer, we discover the smaller branches also split in exactly the same pattern into yet smaller branches. And so it goes on down through to the structure of the leaves as well. The pattern is preserved at every scale of the tree. If we zoom out and consider the forest, we will find the pattern again is followed.
The fractal nature of our world is all around us: the river that branches into streams, the coastline that repeats the same indentations as we zoom in or out, mountain ranges, clouds, flowers fractals above and fractals below. Nature is very efficient; what works at one scale of existence is preserved and used at other scales.
This applies to life as well. Just as a single cell will react in fear to perceived dangers in the environment, in the same way a community of cells will also follow the same pattern of reaction. A human body is one such community, formed of fifty trillion cells working together for a common good. When the community perceives danger, fear may be triggered and the community reacts.
When we feel fear we respond by contracting, moving away from the perceived source of danger, and shutting down. Physiologically our stress response focuses our mind on the danger to the exclusion of all other thoughts: we can not see the big picture now, we can not calmly and rationally ponder what would be the most skillful action to take, we think only of protection-through either flight or through fight.
While we perceive a danger, while fear is present, energy is directed away from non-essential functions such as the immune system. Our blood flow is diverted from our digestion to our heart, lungs and muscles. We shut down ingestion and assimilation. It is not possible to grow and develop whilst in the grip of fear: survival is the only imperative. If we stay locked in the state of fear for long periods of time, we pay a price-we become depleted and exhausted, ill physically, emotionally and mentally.
Love, compassion, joy these emotions are not available while fear is upon us. When threatened we look only for the ways to survive in the short term. We follow the same fractal pattern that the amoeba follows.
As above, so below.
If we zoom out a bit more and look at the community of humans we find again the same fractal pattern played out. When a family is threatened the family contracts. When a village or city is threatened, they too may contract in fear. When a country perceives a threat, the whole country may follow the same pattern of response. The country becomes closed in, walled off, contracted and shrunken. Resources normally used for growth and expansion are shunted to defensive functions. Understanding, compassion, love are not possible for this country while fear reigns. The big picture is lost and reaction, flight or fight, is seen as the only possible course.
Between the reality of danger, the toxins in the Petri dish, and the emotion of fear, which causes contraction, is perception. Perception is the mediator that connects the outside world to our inner reality. The amoeba perceives danger and fear is triggered. In our macroscopic world of daily life, our perceptions are also the mediator between the outer and inner worlds we inhabit. If we perceive that someone is out to get us, we react in fear and the fractal pattern is launched. We withdraw, contract, change our physiology to get ready to fight or run away and we close down emotionally. However, our perceptions may be faulty! The threat may not be real, but if we perceive the outer world to be threatening, fear will arise regardless.
We perceive through what we hear and see: if we see danger, if we hear about danger, our perception will trigger fear. If everyday we read in the media about crime, murders and suicides, our perception will tell us that we are in danger. In our fear we will want to crack down on crime to protect ourselves, and build more prisons, which divert energy away from the constructive, growth sectors of our economy. The facts are not what trigger us: what we respond to are images and sounds. Crime rates may in fact be very low and dropping, but if all we hear about is crime, our fears stay activated and growth is impossible. Media know this very well: “if it bleeds, it leads” is the philosophy for selling newspapers-show the dangerous stuff. It helps to focus attention narrowly on one issue, blocks out other skillful thinking and shuts down love, joy and compassion. This is great for selling news, but it comes at a cost. We become ill physically, emotionally and mentally.
If our community is repeatedly told that it is in danger, it will perceive threats all around and fear will take hold. We will want to protect ourselves by declaring war: War on Drugs, War on Cancer, War on Terror. War diverts our energy and resources away from growth. It is not possible to expand joy, love and compassion when you are fighting wars. Many politicians know this: if they can make the community perceive danger, their fears will make them forget about everything else. Who cares about your family’s health, your children’s’ education, and your jobs when your survival is threatened?
Fear is a healthy, natural mechanism that all organisms need. From the small amoeba, to each individual human, to the largest communities of humanity, fear can help us survive. But faulty perceptions that lead to a constant state of fear cause great harm. The organism or the community becomes exhausted and ill.
Fractals of Love
The opposite of fear is love. Surprisingly the opposite of love is not hate; hate still requires a relationship with someone else. Fear is a moving out of relationship totally, while love is moving into a complete relationship. Let’s replace the toxic sludge in the Petri dish with some healthy food. The amoeba now opens, expands and moves forward. It engulfs the object of its desire and takes in the nutrients. It grows, thrives and reproduces. Love builds health and wholeness.
As below, so above!
Our community of fifty trillion cells also benefit when we perceive safety and nutrition in our environment. Our physiology changes when we experience love, joy and compassion. We digest fully our food or what our senses present to us; blood flow is directed to our organs and the brain. Our thoughts are expansive; we can see the big picture. Our actions are skillful. We open to others.
As below, so above!
Our unity of humans, our humanity, creates the larger community. When the community’s perceptions reveal safety, harmony and opportunity, the community grows and prospers. Tolerance, compassion and skillful means abound. Wisdom flourishes and the cycle turns creating more love and joy.
The fractals of love are every bit as real as the fractals of fear. At all levels, organisms respond to their perceptions in predictable, observable ways. The key is always the perception, not the environment. If we allow our perceptions to transmit only signals of danger, fear will rule. If we allow our perceptions to transmit signals of harmony and opportunity, love will rule.
In the end, the way we perceive the world is a choice. We can choose to pay attention to sounds of danger and fear or we can choose to turn off those channels and listen instead for the sounds of harmony and love. This does not mean we need to ignore real danger, but we do not need to wallow in fear. Once the danger is past, let it be, tune in to love and grow once more.
Bruce Lipton has written skillfully about the power of our beliefs in his books: in his most recent book, Spontaneous Evolution, he cites a story, excerpted below, told by Kathryn Watterson that illustrates how we can choose to feed fear or feed love regardless of the apparent danger. It is the story of Michael Weisser, a Jewish cantor, and his wife, Julie.
Shortly afterward, they received a package of racist flyers with a card that announced: “The KKK is watching you, scum.” The police told the Weissers it looked like the work of Larry Trapp, a self-described Nazi and local Ku Klux Klan grand dragon. Trapp had been linked to fire bombings of African American homes in the area and a center for Vietnamese refugees. The 44-year-old Trapp, leader of the area’s white supremacist movement, was wheelchair bound and had diabetes. At the time, he was making plans to bomb B’nai Jeshuran, the synagogue where Weisser was cantor.
Julie Weisser, while frightened and infuriated by the hate mail, also felt a spark of compassion for Trapp, who lived alone in a one-room apartment. She decided to send Trapp a letter every day with passages from Proverbs. When Michael saw that Trapp had launched a hate-spewing TV series on the local cable network, he called the Klan hotline and kept leaving messages: “Larry, why do you hate me? You don’t even know me.”
At one point, Trapp actually answered the phone and Michael, after identifying himself, asked him if he needed a hand with his grocery shopping. Trapp refused, but a process of rethinking began to stir in him. For a while, he was two people: one still spewing invective on TV; the other talking with Michael Weisser on the phone, saying, “I can’t help it, I’ve been talking like that all my life.”
One night, Michael asked his congregation to pray for someone who is “sick from the illness of bigotry and hatred.” That night, Trapp did something he’d never done before. The swastika rings he wore on both hands began to itch, so he took them off. The next day, he called the Weissers and said, “I want to get out, but I don’t know how.” Michael suggested that he and Julie drive to Trapp’s apartment so they could “break bread together.” Trapp hesitated, then agreed.
At the apartment, Trapp broke into tears and handed the Weissers his swastika rings. In November 1991, he resigned from the Klan and later wrote apologies to the groups he had wronged. On New Year’s Eve, Larry Trapp found out he had less than a year to live, and, that same night, the Weissers invited him to move in with them. Their living room became Trapp’s bedroom, and he told them, “You are doing for me what my parents should have done for me.”
Bedridden, Trapp began to read about Mahatma Gandhi and dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to learn about Judaism. On June 5, 1992, he converted to Judaism-at the very synagogue he had once planned to blow up. Julie quit her job to care for Larry Trapp in his last days, and when he died on September 6th of that year, Michael and Julie were holding his hands.
Above Quotation From Kathryn Watterson, Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Wife Trans- formed a Klansman, (Boston, MA: Northeastern University, 2001).
(Back to Newsletter #8)