Combat Culture and Fighting for Everything: Wake Up, Go to War, Sleep, Repeat
For more than seventeen centuries, world leaders have been operating under the principles of conquest and genocide that were outlined in the fourth century under the 'just war' theory. Throughout history, these acts have not only been promoted as just and noble, they have been cited by religious leaders as obligations to God. Under these archaic laws and the ideologies that shaped them, we have come to believe that conquest is the natural order of things. We find it in nearly every aspect of our lives. We must conquer our demons, our bodies, and our enemies alike. We have a war on terrorism, a war on drugs, and a war on poverty. We battle depression, anxiety, and our fat. We even battle for peace. This ideology has become so deeply embedded into the public psyche that it is now part of our common language. Even in the work that we are doing to help shift toward a world of peace, we engage the language of conquest by seeking to "topple," "overthrow," and "tear down" our opponents. We have been indoctrinated so completely that even to imagine another way of being is viewed as naïve or crazy."~~~
Sherri Mitchell (Weh'na Ha'Mu' Kwasset) - Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change
The Self-Undermining Strategy of "Fighting for Health"
As I mentioned briefly on the "Silence and Slowness" page of this website, the conquest-fighting-battle discourse pervasive in contemporary society has infiltrated even our health and wellness discourse and practice. This is especially problematic and ironic, because insofar as we "fight/combat stress," we are actively undermining our own goal by engaging and perpetuating the very condition of neurophysiology we are trying to resolve.
To make sense of this seeming paradox, we need only understand a few basic components of our neurophysiology as it relates to stress, safety-danger, and defensive-survival-protective responses. The core phenomenon at play here is a form of Marshall McLuhan's brilliant dictum that "the medium is the message." This is effectively the positive/substantive definition of "non-dualism." (Non-dualism doesn't name something substantively, it just says what something isn't: dualistic.) The full story of how "the medium is the message" is a definition of non-dualism is a story for another day (I could write an entire book just on that!). But the idea is so vitally important for properly understanding human cognition that I like to toss it in whenever I can.
The Neurophysiology of Distress: "You Are What You Do"
Most folk have heard the phrase "you are what you eat." The idea here has direct relevance to our cognitive experience as well, not the least because cognition quite literally is the holistic, multidimensional metabolic functions of a living system. In the new paradigm of deep life-mind continuity, in which mind-cognition is understood through a process ontological autopoiesis, the concepts and phenomena of "doing" and "being" are unified into a self-same whole. There is not things that do things, there are simply doings. Yes, the language gets awkward here. Our pervasively dualistic, objectivist, scientistic language simply cannot adequately and accurately -- let alone eloquently -- convey the nature of life-mind-cognition-consciousness.
Stress is a practical example of this. Typically, "stress" as such is confused with a specific form of stress called "distress," which is harmful or dysfunctional stress. Eustress is stress that's functionally adaptive and productive of beneficial outcomes (e.g., being slightly activated before an athletic, musical, or intellectual performance such as taking a test; in these and other situations, a moderate degree of stress actually optimizes performance). I like to think of "stress" as tension. And, as the paradigm of biotensegrity shows, tension is an essential, ineradicable dynamic of all living systems (and, indeed, manifest reality as such).
So, when most people talk about stress as something bad or harmful to eliminate, they're talking about distress. Neurophysiologically, distress is what we experience in a nervous state of hyperactivity/hyperarousal, which is when activity in the sympathetic-adrenal nervous system dominates our neurophysiology. (The technical dynamics of variable nervous system activation are very complex, so I won't go into all of that here.) The key idea is that distress is what we experience when we shift into a fight-flight-flee defensive response following a trigger by a dangerous/threatening situation. This protective response is defined and enabled by the nervous system shifting into a state of sympathetic dominance.
When we engage our sympathetic fight/flight response, our bodies literally prepare to physically fight and/or flee. All available energy resources are removed from tissues, functions and organs that aren't necessary for the immediate survival of the organism in the face of the life-threat (real or imagined); those resources are sent to the muscles and bodily functions needed for battle. In a full fight/flight response, over 2,100 chemical reactions occur instantly throughout the body, which serve to prepare us for physical combat. This results in a profound increase in tension throughout the body, which is adaptive (eustress) in the face of life-threat or extreme danger. But when the threat is eliminated, subsides, or we escape the situation, remaining in such a hyperactivated state is profoundly damaging to our health, as our life-support systems (metabolism, digestion, immune defense, restoration-repair, etc.) remain deactivated or at least tuned down and depleted of the resources/energy (blood, oxygen, etc.) they need to function properly.
Virtually everyone in civilizational-industrial culture experiences some degree of this distress. As I have discussed at length elsewhere, depression and anxiety -- which are the symptomatic outgrowths of unresolved trauma -- are now the leading causes of health disturbances worldwide (more than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes). There is quite literally a global pandemic of trauma today. Very few people are deeply, thoroughly, sustainably regulated and safe. And that is why the consumer market is chock full of products and services promising to help us reduce our stress.
The trouble is how we try to address this pandemic of distress. In far too many cases, our medical and therapeutic attempts to resolve stress are infected with the very cause of the dis-ease those attempts are attempting to address!
Namely, we live in a culture of combat. Discourse and practice characterized by warfare-oriented vocabulary and strategies absolutely dominate our cognitive environments. This has become so pervasive that most people never notice how thoroughly such battle-oriented language and perspectives have infiltrated virtually every aspect of our lives. Over the past year or so, I've taken note of examples of this that I casually see moving through the world. Below, I've listed a number of examples of this. Just remember: this was an informal study; I did not actively look for these examples, I simply noticed them while observing with intentional awareness everything in my environment. A more formal study would surely find many more instances of how our culture frames everything in terms of fighting, combatting, battling, attacking, targeting, defending, and the like.
Here is what I found. We are told to fight, battle for, combat, target, conquer, and/or kill...
- stress and fatigue
- local neighborhoods
- burnout, overwhelm, disconnection
- anxiety and depression
- climate change
- "the crash"
- adrenal fatigue
- healthcare disparities
- bugs and tree sap
- free radicals
- antibiotic resistance
- monkeypox stigma
- chronic illness
- dried-in stains
- white marks and yellow stains
- plastic bottle waste
- bacteria growth
- the frigid end of fall
- rampant loneliness, divisiveness, and emptiness
- the war on the roads
- blended health foods
- grains for bread-baking
- vaccine hesitancy
- pour-over coffee
*Pictures of all these are in the slideshow below:
As this mere partial list of such examples reveals, our cultural-cognitive-conceptual ecologies are pervaded by the implication that virtually every problem, challenge or even opportunity we face should be confronted by battling it. We must wage war on anything that isn't perfect. We must combat, fight for, and/or conquer as a primary means of achieving and creating goodness in ourselves and in the world. Given that our social ecology is dominated by such ideas, is it any wonder that the large majority of people in civilizational-industrial culture are chronically stuck in some degree of a defensive-survival response?
The massive irony of this total war ideology, in relation to health/dis-ease, is that chronically being in a neurophysiological state of combat-attack-defense is the very condition of dis-ease that we are told we must combat!!! Let's break this down so that the direct connection between individual neurophysiological dis-ease (i.e. "trauma") and cultural dis-ease (eco-relational trauma) is readily apparent:
- distress just is the feeling of being in a defensive-survival response, characterized by a neurophysiological condition of sympathetic-adrenal dominance (i.e., fight-flight)
- the more we try to combat, fight, attack, and/or kill something, the more distress we create
- countless "health" products and medical-therapeutic services encourage us to fight-combat-target-conquer-kill all of our ills, weaknesses, and imperfections
- citizens of civilizational-industrial cultures are more distressed and dis-eased than any previous society in history
Hmm. Perhaps combatting stress isn't a good strategy for creating health after all.
To add insult to injury, our social discourse is also pervaded by vocabulary, metaphor, symbolism, and imagery of an endless frantic crisis that further triggers our defensive-survival responses and sustains us in a chronic state of fear and high-alert. For instance, here is a list of terms I saw frequently used in news media and blog/essay/podcast headlines during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic:
Collapse (of health care system)
Rapid and violent surge
Racing/races to aid
And, as if this wasn't enough, marketing discourse tells us that we are always short on time and therefore we must race and rush through life so as to not "miss out" on whatever it is some company is desperately trying to sell us. Advertisements frequently tell us to "Act now! Hurry in! Sale ends soon! Act fast! This deal won't last long! For a limited time only! Hurry, don't miss out! You don't want to miss this deal! While supplies last! Don't wait!" etc.
All these imperatives to frantically fight all manner of life situations and to anxiously chase deals and experiences so as to not "miss out" paradoxically function to create a social condition in which we do miss out precisely because we are chaotically running around like infuriated ants whose nest has been disturbed.
All these imperatives to frantically fight all manner of life situations and to anxiously chase deals and experiences so as to not "miss out" paradoxically function to create a social condition in which we do miss out precisely because we are chaotically running around like infuriated ants whose nest has been disturbed. What we miss is the full experience of the present moment, which can only be felt when we are regulated, can slow down, and can connect with the qualitative ineffability of our somatic minds, which constitutes 99% of human cognition. And the present moment is all there ever is to experience anyway! We are never not in the present, except insofar as we are dissociated due to unresolved trauma (which functions to replay the past in the present, perpetually until the trauma is resolved) and/or anxious anticipation of an imagined but not-yet-real future. Being immersed in such a fear-, shame-, and scarcity-based socioeconomic mentality, we become accustomed to operating in fight/flight mode as a baseline approach to life.
When constant, excessive speed, intensity, and fear comes to characterize a cultural ecology, those qualities and forms of experience "trickle down" into our own cognitive condition. The ironic result is that we militarize our approach to our own health and wellbeing. For instance, in the advertisement for his Masterclass, neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker, Ph.D., asserts that new, digital sleep tracking technologies may be "the ultimate secret sleep weapon." I totally agree with Dr. Walker that sleep is the "elixir of life," and is essential for health, but do we really need to weaponize our engagement with sleep?
Likewise, insofar as we try to combat or fight the symptoms of our individual-collective dis-ease, we will merely be exacerbating those symptoms, because symptoms such as chronic distress, depression, anxiety, etc. just are the manifestations of existing in a state of chronic fight-flight. As Alan Watts says, "the best way to clear muddy water is to let it settle." Analogously, the best way to calm an out-of-control sympathetic survival fight-flight response is not to fight/combat stress and disease (which only stirs up more neurophysiological "mud," i.e. distressing tension, in our systems), it is to learn the somatic skills necessary to effectively and safely release those energies and sustainably regulate our energies by engaging life not as a constant battle but as a dance, story, or adventure. ("Remember the dance language is, that life is." - Joy Harjo)
Please note that in offering this critique of social discourse, I am not implying that the things people often "fight" are not worthy of attention and change. Obviously, phenomena like poverty and climate change deserve serious attention and coordinated efforts to redress. What I'm encouraging are more expansive, creative, complex, and adaptive strategies for engaging such issues and for creating and sustaining health and well-being.
The idea in highlighting the ubiquity of this "fighting-battle" discourse is to draw attention to how countless features of our social environment work to keep our nervous systems on high alert, which dramatically impairs our abilities to think creatively; solve complex problems; communicate effectively, efficiently, and compassionately; and establish cooperative relationships with those also working to address the intersecting challenges all of humanity now collectively faces. Simply by moving through the world on a daily basis and being exposed to the thousands of dire, global, intractable issues plaguing the planet can keep us perpetually triggered into a survival and/or defensive nervous state. And when we remain in such a state over time, we adopt postures, perspectives, and response patterns characterized by chronic distress and fear.
This is massively detrimental to our health and profoundly undermines our abilities to perceive, feel, think, communicate and act with compassion, subtlety, creativity, and patience. As the leading epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., says, "If I had to say right now, the biggest challenge...in society right now is the lack of creative imagination." The tasks we collectively face today are astounding in intensity, complexity, and severity. We can't possibly create a coordinated effort to collectively address contemporary socioecological challenges when we're chronically stuck in states of sympathetic hyperarousal, as many folk today are. Consistently acting from/through a crisis mode will, in some way or another, inevitably create more of the destructive chaos that triggers us into crisis mode in the first place.
As Bayo Akomalafe asks, "What if the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis?" The pioneering neuropragmatic psychologist John Dewey detected this tendency in modern industrial society 100 years ago. As Dewey put it:
"The world seems mad in preoccupation with what is specific, particular, disconnected in medicine, politics, science, industry, education. In terms of a conscious control of inclusive wholes, search for those links which occupy key positions and which effect critical connections is indispensable. But recovery of sanity depends upon seeing and using these specifiable things as links functionally significant in a process. To see the organism in nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy. And when thus seen they will be seen to be 'in,' not as marbles are in a box but as events are in history, in a moving, growing never finished process. Until we have a procedure in actual practice which demonstrates this continuity, we shall continue to engage in appealing to some other specific thing, some other broken off affair, to restore connectedness and unity-calling the specific religion or reform or whatever specific is the fashionable cure of the period. Thus we increase the disease in the means used to cure it." (Dewey's Collected Works, LW1:224-25; emphasis original).
If a large part of the dis-ease, as I am suggesting on this website, is a culture of excitotoxicity, hyperarousal, and constantly battling everything as if life is just one long unending war against, then any effort to create ease instead of dis-ease that employs those very qualities and characteristics of action (i.e., hyperaroused, excessive sympathetic fight/flight energy) will not create ease but merely add to the dis-ease characteristic of such chaotic, uncertain times.
When we fight, combat, attack, target, and battle everything from pit stains to climate change to cancer to grease to tree sap to symptoms of chronic nervous system dysregulation, we inadvertently contribute to the very conditions that are portrayed as a constant, extreme, apocalyptical crisis, which our embodied minds neurocept as dangerous or even life-threatening, triggering us into a deeper survival-crisis response, which only makes us more likely to detect threat and danger in our environments and thereby come to perpetually react to everything as and with a crisis mentality.
This can become a self-recursively triggering positive feedback loop, which, within an individual organism, constitutes the structural and energetic dynamics of an anxiety attack. So, in a very real way, extrapolating this to society as an autopoietic whole (i.e. living system/organism), our collective condition is one of chronic social-systemic-structural anxiety and distress. Is it any wonder that the large majority of people in industrial cultures are chronically depressed and anxious?
A final disclaimer: I want to emphasize that in saying all this, I am not suggesting that there are not very real battles occurring out there in the world. I realize that many individuals, communities, and cultures are quite literally attacked and threatened on a daily basis. I am not trying to dismiss this reality. What I'm offering is the invitation to ask how our social discourse functions to create crisis and threat where there might not be any, or where we might more adaptively and fruitfully characterize a situation differently. Sometimes, we legitimately need to fight and defend. Other times, this approach at best limits our ability to create constructive, healing change and at worst contributes to the issues creating distress and dis-ease in the first place.
When, where, how, and to what degree any given strategy is used by an individual, group, community, culture, government, or humanity generally are massively complex and locally-contingent questions. Thus, as always, I offer no formula or trademarked 10-step plan that I market as somehow miraculously applicable to any one of the billions of unique situations people confront on a daily basis. The application and enaction of these ideas -- or whatever ideas this writing might prompt in you -- is up to you, as they apply or don't apply to your unique, contingent, dynamic local situation.
Mitchell, Sherri. Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change. North Atlantic Books, 2018.
Harjo, Joy. How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001. Revised edition. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.
Vine, David. Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World. Reprint edition. Skyhorse, 2017.
_____. The United States of War: A Global History of America's Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020.