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Conflict Resolution, Genetics and Alchemy - The Evolution of Conflict Transmutation
Conflict Resolution, Genetics, and Alchemy - The Evolution of Conflict Transmutation
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The Intersection of Conflict Resolution, Genetics, and Alchemy
The study of genetics may appear to have little to do with conflict resolution and even less so with alchemy. Conflict resolution studies conflicts between individuals and communities and has led to the development of a range of intervention strategies and communication models for resolving conflict in a peaceful manner. Alchemy, on the other hand, broadly refers to a discredited forerunner to modern chemistry that was practiced in the Middle Ages and attempted to transmute base physical matter into more valuable or evolved forms. Genetics or molecular biology, in contrast, involves understanding how genetically stored information in the basic unit of life, the cell, influences the reproduction, physical characteristics, and behavior of humans. This paper argues that there is an important intersection between these three distinct fields. This intersection is based on the insight that the basic emotions and thoughts responsible for human behavior are genetically recorded in each and every cell that makes up the human body and are passed down through succeeding generations. In the 16th century, the French philosopher Michel Montaigne had a similar insight when he wrote: "What a wonderful thing it is that drop of seed from which we are produced bears in itself the impressions, not only of the bodily shape, but of the thoughts and inclinations of our fathers."(2) If Montaigne is correct, as I contend he is, then the ways in which individuals (and communities) behave in conflicts are not merely a result of socialization and nurturing processes but are genetically passed down.
Recent research findings in genetics confirm many historic insights, such as Montaigne's, into the sources of human behavior and open an important new frontier for the discipline of conflict resolution.(3) This new frontier requires that conflict resolution take an extra step in its ongoing evolution as a social science by doing two things. First, conflict resolution must understand how genetically stored information influences the way individuals and even communities behave in conflicts. This requires understanding how individual thoughts and emotions interact with genetically stored information to form the bases for behavior in conflict situations. Second, conflict resolution must explore methods of transforming this genetic pool of information in a way that produces more harmonious and cooperative forms of conflict behavior. This requires exploring practices and disciplines that seek to transform the fundamental bases of human behavior -- thoughts and emotions that are locked away in our genetic pool of information.
Alchemy adds a fascinating addition to the intersection of genetics and conflict resolution since it provides a set of esoteric practices for transmuting base physical matter into more refined substances. In the Middle Ages, alchemy was widely understood to involve the transmutation of base metals, such as lead, into gold. As a science, alchemy was eventually discredited, but it proved to be an important forerunner to modern chemistry. However, alchemy also had a more esoteric dimension that was profoundly mystical. In this sense, alchemy was a set contemplative practices by which practitioners would transmute the base matter of individual personality into a more divine or saintly set of personal qualities. In essence, alchemy aimed to transmute individuals from 'sinners' into 'saints.' Alchemy can therefore be understood as a set of contemplative mystical practices found in all religious traditions that has led to remarkable transformations in the behavior of countless individuals. Individuals previously disposed to unproductive or destructive conflict behaviors have developed entirely new ways of responding to conflicts. Such changes cannot be explained solely by individuals changing their intellectual world views since emotions often have a way of overcoming the most sincere intellectual beliefs. This is easily seen by the number of earnest New Year's resolutions broken by individuals who are intellectually committed to changing their habits. The phrase made popular by Saint Augustine, 'the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,' demonstrates the extent to which powerful emotions holds sway over even our most ardent intellectual convictions.
Practitioners of contemplative practices have been able to affect deep emotional and psychological changes due to mystical experiences wherein elevated feelings of oneness and love for all humanity change their intellectual world views and emotional responses. Modern day alchemists have found the secret to transmuting the deep emotional and psychological drives that human reason often spectacularly fails to control. Contemplative practices demonstrate how we might transmute genetically stored thoughts and emotions to fundamentally alter behavior at all levels of human interaction. Such a transmutation of genetic information has implications not only for each individual, but for successive generations that will inherit our genetic material.
Genetics as a discipline implies that we are the slaves of history insofar as we are hardwired by genetically stored information that influences all aspects of the human condition. In contrast, conflict resolution and alchemy teach how we can become the master of our future by changing fundamentally the way we perceive ourselves and behave in conflict situations. The intersection of genetics, conflict resolution, and alchemy leads to a form of 'gene therapy' based not on advanced technology to change dysfunctional genetic codes, but on contemplative practices that transform the deepest codes known to humanity for influencing individual behavior. The intersection of these three fields posits a brave new world where individuals can become the master of how they behave in conflict situations that trigger genetically coded conflict behaviors that would otherwise enslave us to destructive past practices.
Alchemy, in the sense I have used it as a modern day form of mysticism, varies widely in the way it is formulated and practiced.(4) However, alchemy can be understood essentially as a set of contemplative practices that seek to transmute the base matter of destructive and competitive human behavior -- genetically stored thoughts and emotions that derive both from our ancestors and from ourselves. Alchemy transmutes thoughts and emotions based on the separateness and randomness of all life to thoughts and emotions that emphasize the interconnectedness and universal order of all life.
Conflict resolution is fundamentally concerned with understanding the sources and dynamics of conflict in order to develop more effective strategies and mechanisms for resolving human conflicts. As the field of conflict resolution evolves, a deepening appreciation of the role of human nature in understanding the sources and dynamics of conflict is occurring. This is where conflict resolution, genetics, and alchemy intersect. It is in that intersection that 'conflict transmutation' is born. This paper explores that intersection in a way that seeks to gain an insight into some of the future challenges confronting the field of conflict resolution. Indeed, my main argument is that conflict resolution is evolving toward a more transformative discipline that combines the insights and tools developed by conflict resolution theorists with knowledge of inherited behavioral characteristics provided by molecular biologists and the insights of mystics into the fundamental determinants of human behavior.
The Evolution of Conflict Resolution
It is fair to say that conflict resolution is simultaneously an ancient and a new field of academic study. It is ancient insofar as humans have always attempted to regulate and settle conflicts by recourse to a variety of strategies. These include rule of law, political agreements, religious authority, and of course brute military force. All of these strategies have, to varying degrees, emphasized the role of abstract principles of justice, morality, and divine guidance in ending conflict. As a new field of study, conflict resolution attempts to move beyond this time honored set of strategies by developing theoretical insights into the nature and sources of conflict and how conflicts can be resolved to bring about durable settlements without the use of military force.
The theoretical breakthrough that was to usher in conflict resolution as a social science in the modern era was the insight that 'cooperative conflict behavior' would eventually elicit favorable responses by other parties in a conflict. Competitive conflict behavior, on the other hand, would perpetuate itself and could result in destructive behavior. Such an insight is by no means an original one and can be found in virtually all societies. Indeed, in the New Testament account of Jesus' arrest, one of his disciples took out his sword in defense of Jesus and cut off the ear of one of the soldiers. Jesus admonished his disciple and said that "all who draw the sword will die by the sword."(5)
One of the first to develop the insight into the beneficial consequences of cooperation as a subject of academic enquiry was Morton Deutsche who wrote an article in 1949 titled, "A theory of cooperation and competition."(6) In his later book, The Resolution of Conflict (1973), Deutsche was able to develop a much more sophisticated understanding of the processes and forces that lead to competitive or cooperative conflict behaviors. He developed Deutsche's 'crude law of social relations': "the characteristic processes and effects elicited by a given type of social relationship (for example, cooperative or competitive) also tend to elicit that type of social relationship."(7) Deutsche's work set the agenda for conflict resolution until the 1980s and still exerts a powerful influence.
The conceptual breakthrough in discovering the practical benefits of cooperative conflict behavior was a key departure from the ancient set of tools that were based on the assumption that cooperation, while morally desirable, was in many cases politically naive. One need only look to the criticism Winston Churchill had of his leader, Neville Chamberlain, for cooperating with Adolph Hitler at Munich in 1938 to ward off World War II. The subsequent World War served for decades as a powerful reminder of the folly of believing that cooperation with tyrannical leaders would elicit cooperative responses. This has served to strengthen the belief by political elites that competitive and adversarial conflict behaviors would best serve the interests of their countries, and of course their own political careers.
The conceptual insight that cooperation would elicit cooperative behavior by both sides in a conflict was mathematically supported in game theory where conflict resolution practitioners examined a variety of models to understand how parties negotiated in conflicts. It was argued that cooperation showed itself to be the most desirable means of behaving in conflict situations insofar as all sides in a conflict would eventually learn they could optimize their interests by cooperating. During the Cold War era, advocates of conflict resolution argued that the nuclear arms race could be diminished by applying the theoretical insight provided by game theory. Unilateral concessions by one side would eventually elicit, it was argued, similar responses by the other side. Charles Osgood's 1962 model of 'Graduated Initiatives in Tension reduction' (GRIT) exemplified the theoretical insight that cooperative conflict behavior would eventually elicit cooperative responses.(8)
The conceptual breakthrough that cooperation was not only morally desirable but also mathematically the means by which one could optimize outcomes, led to more research on why parties behaved competitively despite the advantages provided by cooperation. Human psychology was an important part of the work of the early conflict resolution theorists who invoked such elements as the role of negative stereotypes and enemy images in perceiving and dealing with the enemy. It was argued, for example, that prior to dropping the atomic bombs on Japan, American policy makers had concluded that negotiating Japan's surrender would be ineffective due to the variety of stereotypes through which Japanese leaders were perceived.
A result of understanding the benefits of cooperative versus competitive conflict behaviors was that these two categories could be further broken down into a variety of negotiating strategies adopted by conflicting parties. In their immensely popular 1981 book, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury argued that there were essentially three forms of conflict behavior. The first two, 'soft' and 'hard positional bargaining,' resulted in parties either surrendering or defending their respective positions. Hard positional bargaining was competitive, adversarial, and often led to undesirable outcomes for the weaker party. Soft positional bargaining, on the other hand, yielded too much in a negotiation to the stronger party and similarly led to an undesirable outcome. In the third conflict behavior, 'principled negotiation,' parties would instead cooperate in seeking to identify their underlying interests and make these the basis of a solution that would prove durable and satisfactory to both parties.
Fisher and Ury broke new ground insofar as they suggested there were no value system that could be invoked as a means of resolving conflict. Cooperation itself became the ultimate value system and was stressed as the critical factor for conflict resolution. Fisher's and Ury's model led to a kind of amoral theoretical approach that has made some feel very uncomfortable with the idea that cooperation itself becomes the ultimate value system in resolving conflict. If there was no ultimate value system, couldn't that lead, in some cases, to parties cooperating to bring about immoral ends on the basis of their underlying interests? If so, what distinguished conflict resolution at the international level from the 'power politics' that sought to justify national interests as the ultimate basis for organizing and settling major international conflicts? Wouldn't the model advocated by Fisher and Ury justify resolutions to a conflict that preserved the interests of self-serving political leaders? For example, at a celebrated meeting between the leaders of Croatia and Serbia shortly after the beginning of war in the former Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia, Presidents Tudjman and Milosevic supposedly carved up Bosnia to suit each other's national interests. What distinguished this act of realpolitik from the principled negotiation of Fisher and Ury?
The moral and social justice limitations inherent in Fisher and Ury's interest-based model led to efforts to develop a deeper and more satisfying theoretical basis for conflict resolution. The person who pioneered the next important evolutionary stage in conflict resolution was John Burton. Burton argued that one had to distinguish between the basic needs and interests of parties in a conflict.(9) Basic needs represented the underlying motivations of humans, such as the needs for food, shelter, safety, identity, and love, which could all be satisfied due to the subjective nature of these needs. In contrast, interests were defined more narrowly as anything that could be negotiated by a party without threatening their underlying needs. As Burton writes: "'Disputes' involve negotiable interests, while 'conflicts' are concerned with issues that are not negotiable, issues that relate to ontological human needs that cannot be compromised."(10)
This distinction led to the insight that conflict resolution based on human needs would lead to variable sum or win-win outcomes since no one's basic needs had to be compromised in a conflict. In contrast, an interest based approach to conflict resolution led to fixed-sum outcomes (win-lose) where parties typically had to compromise some of their interests as a result of cooperating to resolve the conflict.
Burton applied John Dollard's theoretical insight that frustration-aggression formed an important causal chain in the emergence of violent conflict. Like Dollard, Burton believed that frustrated needs led to aggressive behavior and were the underlying source of all conflict and violence. In contrast, interests were negotiable, and unsatisfied interests would not necessarily result in aggression and violence. For example, two bordering countries may find themselves in a dispute over fishing quotas in an adjoining sea. One country has a traditional fishing community that relies on fishing while the other has a number of fishing companies that are active in the area. The interests of each country are to maximize the fishing quotas for their respective constituencies. However, the basic need of one country is to maintain the long-term livelihood of its fishing communities while the other wants to protect the commercial viability of its fishing companies. If interests are left unsatisfied, violent conflict will not necessarily occur. If needs are left unsatisfied, then violent conflict is much more likely. Burton's theory was an important advance on the Fisher and Ury model since it was connected to an explicit value system based on non-negotiable basic needs that could satisfy social justice and ethical concerns over the nature of a conflict settlement.
Despite clear differences in terms of the underlying value system that underscored Burton's 'needs based' and Fisher and Ury's 'interest based' models of conflict resolution, both models were oriented toward generating cooperative outcomes to a conflict. Both aimed to equip practitioner's parties with the conceptual skills to become problem solvers in the sense of cooperative conflict behavior. It was focus on training individuals to be problem solvers who generate win-win outcomes that led to growing dissatisfaction in the field of conflict resolution. This dissatisfaction resulted in the next stage in the evolution of conflict resolution - conflict transformation. Robert Bush and Joseph Folger explain this evolution in terms of conflict resolution having reached the crossroads of two approaches to conflict:
The first approach, a problem solving approach, emphasizes mediation's [conflict resolution's] capacity for finding solutions and generating mutually acceptable settlements.... The second approach, a transformative approach to mediation [conflict resolution] emphasizes mediation's [conflict resolution's] capacity for empowering parties to define issues and decide settlement terms for themselves and on helping parties to better understand one another's perspectives.(11)
Conflict transformation is concerned primarily with changing the attitudes and perceptions of the parties to one another. The insight here is that merely cooperating to generate 'win-win solutions' to conflict does not change underlying attitudes, which may easily resurface and fuel other conflicts. For example, if we return to the above dispute between two countries over fishing quotas, a solution could be reached that satisfied each country's interests and needs. However, if negative attitudes developed in each country during the conflict are not addressed, these could serve to generate further conflicts some time later. Janice Gross Stein elaborates on this process:
Embedded enemy images are a serious obstacle to conflict management, routinization, reduction, or resolution. Once formed, enemy images tend to become deeply rooted and resistant to change, even when one adversary attempts to signal a change in intent to another. The images themselves then perpetuate and intensify the conflict. (12)
Merely providing parties with more effective tools to communicate and develop win-win solutions to conflicts is seen as no long-term solution by advocates of conflict transformation. The conflict, therefore, has to be taken as an opportunity to transform the party's perceptions and feelings to prevent future conflicts. What is needed is a more radical attempt to change the underlying emotions and perceptions that influence the behavior of parties in a conflict. This means effort is needed in systematically getting parties to acknowledge and identify the respective feelings, needs, and perceptions of one another and to seek to improve these. Once these elements in a conflict have been satisfactorily dealt with, the stage is set for dealing with substantive issues.
The focus on transforming feelings and perceptions, and recognizing the validity of needs, has led to the idea of empathy being introduced as a fundamental component of conflict resolution. According to Marshall Rosenberg, empathy corresponds to some attempt to acknowledge the feelings and needs of respective parties in a conflict without evaluation or judgment. He believes that if parties in a conflict were able to communicate their needs in ways that did not alienate or antagonize one another, conflict would be quickly resolved. Rosenberg gives an example of how 'empathic' or 'nonviolent communication' can be used:
I was presenting Nonviolent Communication in a mosque at Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem to about 170 Palestinian Moslem men. Attitudes toward Americans at that time were not favorable. As I was speaking, I suddenly noticed a wave of muffled commotion fluttering through the audience. "They're whispering that you are American!" my translator alerted me, just as a gentleman in the audience leapt to his feet. Facing me squarely, he hollered at the top of his lungs, "Murderer!" Immediately a dozen other voices joined him in chorus: "Assassin!" "Child-killer!" Murderer!"
Fortunately, I was able to focus my attention on what the man was feeling and needing. In this case, I had some cues. On the way into the refugee camp, I had seen several empty tear gas canisters that had been shot into the camp the night before. Clearly marked on each canister were the words "Made in USA." I knew that the refugees harbored a lot of anger toward the US for supplying tear gas and other weapons to Israel.
I addressed the man who had called me a murderer:
I: Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently? ...
He: Damn right I'm angry! You think we need tear gas? We need sewers, not your tear gas! We need housing! We need to have our own country!
I: So you're furious and would appreciate some support in improving your living conditions and gaining political independence?...
Our dialogue continued, with him expressing his pain for nearly twenty more minutes, and I listening for the feeling and need behind each statement... An hour later, the same man who had called me a murderer was inviting me to his home for a Ramadan dinner.(13)
Rosenberg's model is relatively new, but it promises to play a revolutionary role in changing the way in which children are educated to resolve conflicts and can play a major role in more conventional arenas of conflict resolution.
Conflict transformation seeks to work at a much deeper level of the human psyche than the previous models of conflict resolution. For the cooperative model of conflict resolution, stress was on improving the basic communication and negotiation tactics of the parties in order to encourage cooperative conflict behavior that integrates the parties' positions and to achieve a suitable outcome. For the interest-based model, one had to penetrate the surface level of positions and dive into the deeper waters of underlying interests behind the positions to generate win-win outcomes. For the needs-based model, one had to go even deeper into the basic needs that underlie all interests and form the ultimate motivating forces of a conflict in order to achieve just and durable outcomes.
The transformative-based model of conflict goes even deeper into the sources of conflict by focusing on the antagonistic perceptions and feelings fueled by frustrated needs of the conflicting parties. This is to accept the idea, initially proposed by Dollard, that the deepest source of conflict comes from a reservoir of frustrated needs. These frustrated needs manifest in terms of antagonistic perceptions and feelings that damage relationships between parties and ultimately fuel conflict and violence. By working with these antagonistic perceptions and feelings arising from frustrated needs, the transformative-based model goes much further in addressing the sources of conflict and therefore offers a more comprehensive model for resolving conflict than other models. The tools developed for this transformative task use a range of strategies from a communication theory, such as Rosenberg's, to conventional religious principles, such as reconciliation and forgiveness,(14) and psychoanalytical techniques developed by conflict intervention practitioners.(15)
Empathy is viewed rightly as a powerful tool for dealing with the perceptions and feelings that fuel conflict. Empathy creates an interactive process between parties that encourages individual catharsis thereby releasing powerful negative emotions and perceptions that give rise to destructive conflict behavior. Furthermore, empathy allows individuals to make a connection at the levels of feelings and needs thereby embracing each other's humanity. Empathy, as a cognitive therapeutic mechanism that encourages catharsis and a humanistic connection, however, does have some important limitations. First, it is an interactive process that relies on individuals attempting to identify the respective feelings and needs that underscore a conflict. While this may do wonders in transforming the feelings and perceptions associated with a particular conflict, it only scratches the surface of deep-rooted feelings and perceptions that influence individual conflict behavior both consciously and unconsciously. While one conflict is resolved, and feelings and needs acknowledged, similar conflict behaviors by the parties may result in further conflict. Essentially, without addressing the ingrained conflict behavior produced as a result of parenting and socialization, one cannot go much deeper than the surface level of feelings and perceptions associated with a current conflict, which may mask deeper feelings and thoughts rooted in the core identity of an individual. Conflict transformation may transform relationships, but it does not go far enough in addressing the underlying sources of conflict behavior. If, as suggested at the beginning of the paper, conflict behavior is genetically recorded, all the models of conflict resolution discussed thus far do not adequately address this fundamental source of conflict behavior.
There is a model of conflict resolution that can be used to address the deep emotions and thoughts that arise during a conflict and perpetuate undesirable conflict behavior. This is a model I will term 'conflict transmutation' since it uses principles and techniques found in alchemy as a set of contemplative practices that transform deeply encrusted feelings and thoughts that fuel destructive conflict behaviors. Alchemy therefore works at the ultimate substratum of conflict and needs to be more seriously considered in terms of its transformative effect on negative feelings and associated thoughts stored at the cellular level. I will now offer a glimpse into what an alchemy-based model of conflict resolution would do in transforming basic emotions and thought patterns that influence conflict behavior by introducing insights drawn from the study of genetics.
The Role of Memory in Aggressive and Self-Destructive Behavior
Alchemy begins with examining the conception of self-identity possessed by an individual or group. The theme of self-discovery is one that appears in virtually all mystical traditions. The single most important factor in this search is memory. Our individual memories shape our basic conceptions of self and form the ultimate source of how we think and behave. If memory is the heart of our conceptions of self, then it is also at the heart of conflict. Memories of frustrated needs are the substratum of conflict behavior and a major source of how we identify ourselves and, consequently, how we think and feel.
Memories of frustrated needs carry with them emotional charges of fear, anger, resentment, sadness, and other emotions felt at the time a need was frustrated. Indeed, all memories carry with them an emotional charge, but it is the negative emotions associated with frustrated human needs that are the source of destructive conflict behavior. These memories form a reservoir of negatively charged emotions that accumulate over time. Deepak Chopra estimates that we have on average 60,000 thoughts in a day. All of these thoughts, no matter how dispassionate or disinterested we believe, carry an emotional charge. This reservoir of memories is 'toxic' insofar as it manifests firstly in dis-ease in one's mental and emotional life. One has a jaundiced view of reality and of people around oneself. One's feelings are dominated by fear and anger that lead to an overly emphasized need to control others and one's environment. The over-emphasized need to control leads to one behaving in aggressive and self-destructive ways that merely perpetuate conflict and reinforce one's jaundiced view of reality and people.
There are six basic ways individuals behave aggressively and self-destructively. All are tragic ways of trying to fulfill our basic needs. These six forms of behavior form three dialectical relationships. This simply means that they form three pairs with a pole at each end. Depending on the behavior axis, aggressive and self-destructive behavior will swing from one end to the other depending on who one is interacting with and the chances of success.
The first dialectical relationship is the intimidator/victim axis. The intimidator seeks to satisfy their needs by making others fearful of the consequences for refusing to comply with him/her. The world is seen by the intimidator in terms of a 'dog eat dog' dynamic where the strong survive and the weak are trampled upon. The 'poor me' or 'victim' form of behavior is the opposite of the intimidator since the self-perceived victim seeks to satisfy their needs by making others feel guilty and by manipulating the sympathy of others. The victim is skilled in using guilt trips to manipulate others.
The second dialectical axis is the interrogator/aloof axis. The interrogator seeks to satisfy their needs by demonstrating their superior logic and aggressively questioning the ideas and motivations of others in an attempt to wear them down and get them to finally capitulate to one's perspective. Around an interrogator, people may feel that it is useless to speak up and expose oneself to an endless series of opinionated statements and aggressive questions. The interrogator believes s/he is on a crusade to find the 'truth' and will ruthlessly pursue it by exposing the faulty logic of others. The polar opposite behavior is where one attempts to remain aloof. Remaining 'aloof' is a strategy designed to achieve ones goals by secrecy and cleverness. One develops this strategy because of the belief that the world is a dangerous place and one has to achieve their goals through indirect ways.
The third dialectical axis for aggressive and self-destructive behavior is the hubris/self-denial axis. The hubristic person is overwhelmed by a sense of their own importance and sees what benefits others primarily in terms of what benefits them. If one is offered a job in another city and accepts it without considering the effect on other family members and seeing all being happier because s/he will be happy then this is likely a case of hubris. In the case of the polar opposite form of aggressive and self-destructive behavior we have self-denial. A person in self-denial would give minimal importance to their own needs and maximize the importance of others. For example, one who sacrifices a promising career to make another person happy is practicing self-denial.
All of the above forms of aggressive and self-destructive behavior contrast with the cooperative, compassionate and creative behavior that is desired by the majority of individuals. All of these forms of behavior are represented in Diagram 1. These forms of conflict behavior merely perpetuate conflict since they are all manipulative and do little to change the reservoir of toxic memories felt by the conflicting parties. In fact, these aggressive and self-destructive behaviors increase levels of frustration since parties in a conflict are likely to become dissatisfied with the way they interact and the outcomes to the conflict. The goal is to move beyond these six forms of behavior by developing a conflict style that is more cooperative and empathic in how one interacts with others. This would enable one to become the problem solver and conflict transformer advocated by the conflict resolution theorists discussed earlier.
Memories Are Stored in Human Cells
Over time, memories of frustrated needs carrying with them their emotional charges become embedded in the human psyche and ultimately in the human body. In the psyche, these emotionally charged memories may be directly felt in an individual's conscious life or, as is more often the case, reside in the human unconscious surfacing at a time and place that follows no logical process. Sigmund Freud was an important pioneer in revealing how unconscious complexes that are made up of emotionally charged memories of frustrated needs, erupt and influence the conscious mind. Freud posited the existence of a rational censor that would metaphorically stand guard at the doorway between the conscious and unconscious mind admitting only those memories that the mind was capable of dealing with at different stages of moral and intellectual development.
The unconscious system may therefore be compared to a large ante-room, in which the various mental excitations are crowding upon one another, like individual beings. Adjoining this is a second, smaller apartment, a sort of reception room, in which consciousness resides. But on the threshold between the two there stands a personage with the office of door-keeper, who examines the various mental excitations, censors them, and denies them admittance to the reception-room when he disapproves of them.(16)
Freud's basic idea was that unless these 'complexes' or 'toxic memories' were eventually dealt with, they would accumulate in the unconscious and spontaneously erupt in devastating ways.
Emotionally charged memories, however, do not reside merely in the unconscious parts of the human psyche waiting for an opportunity to erupt spontaneously into the conscious mind. Rather than harmlessly floating in some unconscious mental space located in the brain, memories become embedded in the muscles, fat, organs, and bones of the human body. Indeed, memories become embedded in the fundamental unit of all biological life -- the cell. Carolyn Myss explains:
Experiences that carry emotional energy in our energy systems include: past and present relationships, both personal and professional; profound or traumatic experiences and memories; and belief patterns and attitudes...The emotions from these experiences become encoded in our biological systems and contribute to the formation of our cell tissue...(17)
Elaborating further on the relationship between thoughts, emotions and biology, she writes:
All our thoughts, regardless of their content, first enter our systems as energy. Those that carry emotional, mental, psychological or spiritual energy produce biological responses that are then stored in our cellular memory. In this way our biographies are woven into our biological systems, gradually, slowly, every day.(18)
Deepak Chopra similarly argues that we "are no longer in doubt about the fact that invisible wisps of thought and emotion alter the fundamental chemistry of every cell."(19) The molecular biologist Candace Pert has recently discovered the scientific basis for the theory that emotions are stored in the body's cells through her theory on cellular communication via neuropeptides emitted both by the brain and the endocrine system:
If we accept the idea that peptides and other informational substances are the biochemicals of emotion, their distribution in the body's nerves has all kinds of significance, which Sigmund Freud, were he alive today, would gleefully point out as the molecular confirmation of these theories. The body is the unconscious mind! Repressed traumas caused by overwhelming emotion can be stored in a body part, thereafter affecting our ability to feel that part or even move it.(20)
The effect of emotionally charged memories on the body's health is increasingly being understood by health care professionals. Myss gives a striking example of how toxic memories can lead to cellular damage and thus form the crucial link in the onset of disease:
Let's say you had some trouble with math when you were in elementary school. Knowing the fact that twelve makes a dozen would not ordinarily carry an emotional charge that would alter the health of cell tissues. On the other hand, if you were humiliated by the teacher because you didn't know that fact, the experience would carry an emotional charge that would create cellular damage, especially if you were to dwell on that memory throughout adulthood or use it as a touchstone for determining how to deal with criticism, or authority figures, or education or failure.(21)
In this sense, the 'dis-ease' in one's emotional and mental life becomes disease in one's physical body. As Chopra states: "distressed mental states get converted into the biochemicals that create disease."(22) A striking conclusion is that all disease is psychosomatic insofar as it can be traced to memories of frustrated needs carrying with them negative emotional charges that have not been adequately dealt with by the conscious mind. To understand fully how toxic memories, carrying with them emotional charges such as fear and anger, influence human behavior in conflict, it is worth investigating how the cells store emotionally charged memories and how communication occurs at the cellular level.
Chopra gives a striking example of how memories are recorded in all the body's cells, even when the cells have been removed from the body:
In one experiment, Backster asked a World War II Navy veteran to watch films of the battles in the Pacific. As soon as the man saw footage of a fighter going down in flames, his polygraph displayed heightened galvanic response. At the same moment, viewed through simultaneous video pickup, there was sudden activity on a polygraph connected to his mouth cells seven miles away. Significantly, this man had been in battle himself and had witnessed planes being downed by enemy-aircraft gunnery. His memory of the threat was triggered, and every cell of his body knew it.(23)
Chopra's striking conclusion is that "every cell in your body is totally aware of how you think and feel about yourself."(24) In an interview with Bill Moyer, Pert similarly argues that "[y]our mind is in every cell of your body."(25)
To understand how emotionally charged memories get carried into all one's cells, we must first examine cellular communication. Most cells have nuclei in which chromosomes are found. For humans, these cells have 46 chromosomes. Each chromosome contains genes made up of DNA, which are strands of information that make up the body's genetic storehouse and guide all aspects of the growth and healing of the human body. DNA is relatively fixed but communicates through the production of RNA, which carries genetic information to other parts of the cell. RNA is the basis for all intra- and inter-cellular communication. More importantly, RNA carries with it the daily production of thoughts and emotions to all the body's cells. Chopra explains cellular communication in the following passage:
Your cells are constantly processing experience and metabolizing it according to your personal views...Someone who is depressed over losing his job projects sadness everywhere in his body - the brain's output of neurotransmitters becomes depleted, hormone levels drop, the sleep cycle is interrupted...This whole biochemical profile will alter dramatically when the person finds a new job, and if its is a more satisfying one, his body's output of neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and all other vital biochemics, down to DNA itself, will start to reflect this sudden turn for the better. Although we assume that DNA is a locked storehouse of genetic information, its active twin, RNA responds to day-to-day existence.(26)
Rather than solely being a source of disease or psychological disturbance, memories stored in cells are an important source of human behavior. This has been supported by some molecular biologists who have been able to map some of the genes responsible for various forms of behavior in some plants and insects.(27) The implication that some human genes can be mapped to determine which are responsible for different categories of human behavior is a breathtaking possibility with enormous ethical implications.
Genetically stored memories, carrying with them their emotional charges from frustrated needs, result in conflict behavior ultimately being handed down from one generation to the next through sexual reproduction. Half of the 46 chromosomes provided by both parents become the basis of a new combination of 46 chromosomes that make up the cellular nucleus of the offspring. The Confucian notion that seven generations will pay for the sins of one's generation therefore carries with it the seeds of an important truth. Genetically stored memories of frustrated needs and their emotional charges become behavioral characteristics that influence successive generations in conflict situations. For example, descendants of the survivors of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire early this century all carry with them the genetically recorded memories of this collective trauma. This exerts a powerful influence on how the Armenian people will respond to threatening situations. This partly helps explain the intense feelings aroused in Armenians by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaidzhan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. For Armenians, the conflict was merely the latest attempt by 'Turks' to wipe out the Armenian people. Similarly, genetically stored memories have influenced the behavior of groups that find themselves in predominant positions of power vis-a-vis former 'oppressors', e.g., Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, and Jews in Palestine.
Genetically recorded information carries with it memories of behavioral characteristics essential for the survival of organisms.(28) Spiders, for example, can weave webs without being trained to do so or having observed other spiders.(29) Aside from purely survival traits, animal species know how to behave in dangerous situations without any form of training. Instinct in the sense of genetically recorded memories of behavioral characteristics is essential for explaining animal behavior and responses to threatening situations. In the case of goslings, Jonathan Weiner writes:
One of [Niko] Tinbergen's books is illustrated by the silhouette of a bird in flight. When newborn goslings see that silhouette in the sky, they read the shape as a goose if it is moving to the left, a hawk if it is moving to the right. The silhouette of the goose does not scare goslings, but the silhouette of the hawk sends them scurrying...Goslings don't learn to make that distinction between friend and enemy from their mothers. They know it from the first moment they see the sky....Now with the tools of genetic dissection biologists can actually begin to study the instincts of goslings and newborn babies at the level of the atoms.(30)
A similar phenomenon occurs with humans insofar as dangerous situations trigger genetically recorded memories of how we should behave. These behavioral characteristics are, therefore, triggered in conflict situations. In his book Fear Itself, Rush Dozier argues that fear is a basic physiological response that has become part of human evolution:
Through understanding fear we understand ourselves. Fear is something humans have in abundance - more, I believe, than any other species. Science calls human beings Homo sapiens: wise man. A better name might be fearful man. Within the animal kingdom, we humans are the connoisseurs of fear. Our big brains harbor vastly more fears than any other animal.(31)
Dozier argues that the basic behavioral response to dangerous situations, fight or flight, is part of what he calls the primitive fear system that is found in the oldest part of the brain - hindbrain. Dozier's book supports the idea that in conflict situations, these behavioral characteristics recorded in the brain and other parts of the anatomy are triggered. In terms of the six aggressive and self-destructive behaviors discussed earlier, 'intimidator,' 'interrogator,' and 'hubris' are all 'fight' responses to threatening situations. In the case of 'victim,' 'aloof,' and 'self-denial' forms of behavior, these are 'flight' responses. Consequently, the aggressive and self-destructive behaviors that individuals consciously adopt in a conflict may, to a significant degree, be a result of genetically recorded memories.
Quite aside from the inherited conflict behaviors resulting from memories passed down from generation to generation at the cellular level, behavior is, to a large extent, determined by a lifetime of responses to conflict situations. Cells continuously absorb new information and pass this on through cellular division and RNA communication within and between cells. If we have 60,000 thoughts per day with emotional charges, these would have a powerful effect on our behavior. If many of these thoughts have a toxic emotional charge, then our choice of conflict behavior is likely to be in the direction of one or more of the four control strategies discussed earlier. In sum, conflict behavior is largely determined by genetic sources -- both inherited and the product of our own thinking and feeling. Consequently, in terms of the perennial debate over the respective importance of nature and nurture in influencing our behavior, both perspectives are correct. We are indeed fundamentally influenced by our nature -- the genetic bases of behavior -- but we also are influenced by nurture, which is the daily product of thoughts and feelings we have each day. Our genetic makeup changes with each and every thought we have.
The idea that emotionally charged memories are genetically stored and perpetuate undesirable conflict behaviors presents a number of challenges for conflict resolution. The challenge first is addressing the conscious memories of frustrated human needs that influence one's behavior in conflict situations. The behavior one adopts in a conflict is largely influenced by one's conscious belief in what strategy will best satisfy one's needs. A deeper challenge then is to address one's unconscious memories. Aggressive and self-destructive behavior adopted in a conflict is greatly influenced by one's unconscious memories of the success or lack of success in using a particular form of behavior in satisfying a need. The next challenge is even more daunting. Not only must one address those memories of personal experiences that have been stored at the cellular level, one must also deal with the genetically recorded memories of earlier generations. One is dealing with patterns of conflict behavior (control strategies) that have been genetically handed down from generation to generation and are evidenced by the culture of a particular group.
Johan Galtung discusses the importance of culturally handed down sets of beliefs in terms of what he calls a society's "'chosenness-myth-trauma' - complex"(32) This complex is made up of key historical events that have been critical in defining a society's identity and how it behaves in conflict situations. While Galtung is ultimately concerned with culture, his conclusions are equally valid for a genetically based explanation for varying conflict behaviors by individuals and groups. Ultimately, the final challenge for conflict resolution is to address the basic behavioral characteristics that are part of human development. This is to directly address the fight or flight responses that Dozier believes to be part of human evolution and genetically stored in the brain (and elsewhere in the human body). Satisfactorily addressing the above sources of genetic information will lead to the disappearance of the six aggressive and self-destructive behaviors discussed above as basic responses to conflict situations. This will culminate in the cooperative problem solving and/or empathic communication advocated by conflict resolution theorists.
Alchemy and Transforming the Genetic Bases of Conflict Behavior
The contemplative practices of alchemy offer an important method for systematically, and layer by layer, dealing with the emotionally charged memories of frustrated needs that form an important basis for one's identity and are a critical source of how we behave in conflict situations. Alchemy works on individuals achieving a state of consciousness where feelings of love, peace, and unity become present in the human consciousness. This is critical since it is the conscious mind that becomes the ultimate source for cleansing or purifying toxic memories located in the human unconscious and at the cellular level in the physical body. In this sense, Freud was correct to describe psychotherapy as designed to help each individual deal consciously with the unconscious complexes that have a disturbing effect on their lives. Once the human consciousness has achieved the positive state of mind encouraged by most contemplative practices, the process of deep individual and human transformation can begin. In this sense, the alchemist or mystic is the mythical hero about to embark on a tremendous journey into the deepest layers of the human psyche and physiology.(33) The ultimate foe encountered in this inner journey is the reservoir of genetically recorded memories of frustrated needs carrying with them their emotional charges of fear, anger, and similar negative emotions. The ultimate victory of the hero's journey is to purify each cell in the body from the influence of this reservoir of negative emotional energy and fill it instead with positive emotional states such as love, joy, and peace. Once the reservoir of toxic memories has been cleansed, one can move from the control strategies discussed earlier to cooperative and empathic conflict behaviors.
Alchemy offers a range of practices that enables the practitioner to purify the conscious mind, and transform the unconscious mind and genetically recorded memories. To describe this process, it is useful to describe the electrical frequencies generated by the brain when performing different functions.(34) The first brain state is where beta waves predominate. Here the brain performs its normal waking functions and vibrates between 14-35 hertz (cycles per second). The second brain state is where alpha waves are present. Here the brain is in a relaxed and meditative state and vibrates between 8-14 hertz. The third brain state is characterized by theta waves where one is in a trance-like state between waking and sleeping. The brain vibrates here between 4-8 hertz. The fourth brain state contains delta waves of deep sleep where the brain vibrates between 0.5-3 hertz. Beta brain activity is the most energy draining for the body and therefore requires long periods of delta activity in order for the body to recover. The more individuals operate from the alpha brain state, the longer they can remain active without draining the body. If one is able to achieve theta or even delta states and remain conscious, then the least energy is expended. This is the reason why mystics who reach theta and delta brain states are often able to perform a wide range of activities with very little sleep.
The cleansing of the unconscious occurs spontaneously once the conscious mind is cleared and normal reflective thought patterns have ceased. Memories stored in the unconscious begin to bubble to the surface. This can be experienced as vivid flashbacks, when one is in the alpha brain state, or dreams, when in the theta state. Beta brain activity prevents the memories in the unconscious from spontaneously erupting into the conscious mind. Once the conscious mind is quiet and alpha waves are dominant, the unconscious begins to release its memories. At first the individual will become preoccupied with the content of these memories and the emotional charges they carry. They may intensely feel the emotions experienced when these memories come to the surface. This may at first overwhelm them and dispel any feelings of love, peace, or joy they were previously consciously experiencing. Put simply, they moves from a meditative alpha state to a disturbed beta state. The contemplative practice adopted by the individual will allow him/her to eventually discharge the emotional charge associated with the memory with a more dispassionate state of mind associated with love, peace, and wisdom. This means that disciplined meditators will be able to remain in the alpha brain state no matter how disturbing the content of memories that flash into their consciousness. As one cleanses the unconscious, one can then proceed to purify the body's storehouse of genetically recorded memories. With experience and the ability to maintain theta and delta brain states, the whole cleansing process speeds up. Indeed, if one can consciously reach and maintain delta brain states, one's whole life may literally flash before one's eyes.
While one cannot appreciably change the historical content of an event, one has the power to change how one remembers it and more importantly how one felt during the event. Child abuse, for example, may have been a historical event in one's life. Attempting to wipe the whole episode out of one's conscious life will not be successful. Indeed, health practitioners warn that simply burying these traumatic experiences away typically leads to disease.(35) However, the individual has the power to change how s/he felt when the abuse occurred and also to change the content of the memory. For example, in the instance of memory when one, as a child, witnessed one parent physically abusing the other parent, the child may have felt great fear and physically cringed over the whole affair. When confronted with this memory, one may discharge the emotional content of the memory by feeling a state of calm and peace despite the physical abuse. In this sense, one has cleansed the memory and the emotional charge is released from wherever it was stored in the physical body. It is also possible for one to reconstruct the memory by imagining that one simply walked up to the abusive parent and demanded that s/he stop. This can be a tremendously empowering experience since one not only has discharged fear, but has created a sense of power and courage. One can visualize the parent stopping. This sets in place a train of unconscious processes whereby one's physical consciousness can be altered. A timid and shy person may therefore find that s/he becomes an assertive and bold person by simply reconstructing past memories.
Once the contemplative practice has cleansed the unconscious portions of the mind, a similar process will occur with those memories stored at the cellular level. Pert explains what happens during this cleansing process in terms of her theory of neuropeptides as the basis of emotion:
Blood flow is closely regulated by emotional peptides, which signal receptors on blood vessel walls to constrict or dilate, and so influence the amount and velocity of blood flowing through them from moment to moment...However, if our emotions are blocked due to denial, repression, or trauma, then blood flow can become chronically constricted, depriving the frontal cortex, as well as other organs, of vital nourishment. This can leave you groggy and less alert, limited in your awareness...As a result, you may become stuck - unable to respond freshly to the world around you, repeating old patterns of behavior and feeling that are responses to an outdated knowledge base. By learning to bring your awareness to past experiences and conditioning - memories stored in the very receptors of your cells - you can release yourself from these blocks, this "stuckness." (36)
Cleansing cells in different regions of the body will release toxic memories that were created in ways specific to the capacities or 'energies' of that region. Richard Richman explains this in terms of the seven energy centers or 'chakras' of the body common in Eastern philosophy:
If we can clear out our negative emotions from our electromagnetic and physical body - i.e., clear out survival issues from our root (first or base chakra), emotional turmoil from our gut (second or spleen chakra), power trips from our solar plexus (third or solar plexus chakra), ambiguous communication from our throat (fifth or throat chakra), distorted vision of the mind's eye (sixth or brow chakra), and a sense of being separate from the universe (seventh or crown chakra) - then we can have a centeredness in our heart (our fourth chakra), focusing on love and healing.(37)
Cleansing the body's cells of toxic memories is clearly a difficult and long process but one that has potential to radically transform one's sense of identity and the way one interacts with others. Ultimately, an individual who has successfully transformed the emotionally charged memories stored at the cellular level, which influence how we behave and think, will be able to break free of the conflict behaviors or 'control dramas' that lead to individuals behaving aggressively and self-destructively in conflict. One's conflict style becomes more cooperative (conflict resolution) and empathic (conflict transformation). This is witnessed in the case of great mystics who were ultimately conflict resolvers and conflict transformers. The Buddha, Jesus, Saint Francis of Assisi, and countless other mystics had achieved states of mind (alpha, theta, and delta brain activity) that led to them purifying a large part of their cellular storehouse of accumulated toxic memories. Individuals coming into their presence would often spontaneously feel joy and happiness since these were the emotional charges these great mystics radiated all the way from their intellectual beliefs to their cellular consciousness. They, therefore, each contributed to human evolution in a significant way insofar as they changed how individuals and communities thought and felt, and how they behaved in conflict situations.
An alchemy-based approach to conflict resolution, what I call conflict transmutation, is at the frontier of the evolution of conflict resolution as a social science. Conflict transmutation presents a series of challenges for how we conceptualize conflict resolution and how individuals develop skills in conflict resolution. The evolution of conflict resolution through successive models based on cooperation, interests, needs, perceptions, and ultimately identity/memory (see Diagram 2) requires more attention be paid to how we set about training ourselves and others for intervening in conflict and, ultimately, for resolving the inherent conflicts in our own personal and collective lives.
Diagram 2: Evolution of Conflict Transmutation
It is only by deeply delving into the mind and body's accumulated storehouse of memories that aggressive and self-destructive patterns of conflict behavior can be changed. Alchemy nicely captures the essence of the task ahead since one is attempting to transmute the 'lead' of negatively charged emotional memories in one's cells into the gold of love and joy that would radiate from each cell. The transmutation of genetically stored memories of frustrated needs and conflict behaviors in each and every cell of the human body is a long and arduous task, but the rewards will be immense for those micronauts willing to transform their inner space and, in the process, radically change themselves and their societies.
Author's note: I am grateful to Kelly Andrews for proofreading this paper and to the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Division at American University, Washington, DC. for the research and teaching environment for development of many of the ideas contained here.
1. Quoted in Jonathan Weiner, Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999) 18.
2. See Jonathan Weiner, Time, Love, Memory.
3. For description of a range of mystical/religious experiences, see William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Collier Books, 1961)
4. Matthew 26:52.
5. Human Relations 2 (1949): 129-51.
6. Morton Deutsche, "Subjective Features of Conflict Resolution," New Directions in Conflict Theory, ed. Raimo Vayrynen (London: Sage Publications, 1991) 31.
7. An Alternative to War or Surrender (University of Illinois Press, 1962)
8. John Burton, Human Needs Theory (New York: St Martin's Press, 1990).
9. John Burton, "Conflict Resolution as a Political Philosophy," Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, ed., Dennis Sandole & Hugo van der Merwe (Manchester University Press, 1993) 55.
10. The Promise of Mediation: Responding to Conflict Through Empowerment and Recognition (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1994) 12.
11. Image, Identity, and Conflict Resolution (US Institute of Peace, 1996) 93.
12. Nonviolent Communication (Puddle Dancer Press, 1999) 11-12.
13. See John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (US Institute of Peace, 1997)
14. See V.D. Volkan, J.V. Montville and D.A. Julius, eds., The Psychodynamics of International Relationships,Vols. I & II, (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1991).
15. Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, 260
16. Myss, Anatomy of the Spirit, 34.
17. Myss, Anatomy of the Spirit, 40.
18. Chopra, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, 118.
19. Molecules of Emotion, The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine (Touchstone Book, 1997) 141.
20. Myss, Anatomy of the Spirit, 34.
21. Chopra, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, 17.
22. Chopra, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, 136.
23. Chopra, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, 24.
24. Quoted in Myss, Anatomy of the Spirit, 35.
25. Chopra, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, 23.
26. See Jonathan Weiner, Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999) 110.
27. Unaware of the emotional content of DNA, geneticists view genes as merely providing information.
28. Sheldrake, A New Science of Life, 23.
29. Jonathan Weiner, Time, Love, Memory, 13.
30. Fear Itself: The Origin and Nature of the Powerful Emotion That Shapes Our Lives and Our World (New York: St Martin's Press, 1998) 6.
31. Peace by Peaceful Means (Sage Publications, 1996) 254.
32. . For discussion of the monomyth of the hero's journey, see Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton University Press, 1973).
33. See Robert Becker,The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life (New York: Quill, 1985) 88.
34. See Carolyn Myss, Anatomy of the Spirit.
35. Pert, Molecules of Emotion, 289.
36. Richman, "On the Path to Body Wholeness and Harmony," Creation Spirituality VII:6 (Nov/Dec): 8-12.
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This article Copyrights Michael E. Salla, PhD. All else ©1998-2000 Tabula Rasa Institute.