Most people who have attended my yoga classes know that I enjoy encouraging people to learn the names and faces of those who are practising beside them. Experience has shown me that a large proportion of yogis fall asleep whilst resting in corpse pose at the end of the lesson, and I personally think it’s strange to sleep next to somebody whose name you don’t know. Perhaps more saliently, I think that getting to know those with whom we share time and space in the context of personal growth can serve as a fantastic step toward a modern version of satsang—a deliberate gathering of like-minded individuals with the purpose of deepening a sense of conscious awareness in their lives.
People often begin going to yoga lessons in order to explore the variety of health benefits. Yet even after years of regular attendance, having attained a more-than-reasonable know-how of the techniques, people continue to show up to classes rather than simply doing the practice on their own. It appears that the majority of people maintain attendance because doing so provides them with something which, much to our detriment, is becoming something of a scarcity in contemporary society: a sense of community.
According to the 2011 [US] census, 32 million people in the country now live alone; that’s 27% of households, up from 17% in 1970. When researchers asked a representative sample of Americans in 1985 how many confidants they had, the most popular answer was three. When the study was repeated in 2004, the most popular answer—given by 25% of respondents—was none.
One can imagine that the trends toward isolation have continued in the years since these data were collected. But is being alone necessarily a negative thing? From a spiritual perspective, it may feel intuitive to consider solitude a virtue; to a degree, this holds true. Many tribal cultures celebrate spiritual rites of passage by sending young adolescents on solitary spirit journeys, as a way of connecting more deeply with oneself and communing with the natural world outside of the influence of other humans. Contemporary cultures may eschew subjecting their unaided offspring to the wiles of the natural world, but a more acceptable sort of “spirit journey” may come at other points in life in the form of a solo trip abroad with the purpose of somehow “finding yourself.” More frequently necessary is, of course, a moment of solitary pause from the bustle—whether to meditate, to walk in nature, or to journal, for example.
Whatever form or duration the break from the group may take, the idea is almost always eventually to reintegrate into and enrich the family or society with newly acquired wisdom or a reinvigorated sense of purpose. The well-known historical figure Superman may have visited his Fortress of Solitude when he felt the need to recharge, but it is ultimately his public service for which we will always remember him.
And if Jesus Christ had never returned after his wandering in the desert for forty days—or, certainly more importantly, had not emerged from the even solemner solitude of his own tomb—a message that changed the course of human history would never have seen the light of day. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell makes perhaps the clearest case for the importance of societal reintegration as the ultimate end of the archetypical spiritual journey:
The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life…the work of representing eternity in time, and perceiving in time eternity, cannot be avoided.
And we benefit from being around others just as much as society benefits from the wisdom we can bring back from our spiritual pursuits—in ways that are not simply mythical but actually highly practical. In this TED Talk, Robert Waldinger presents the ongoing results of the longitudinal Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began during the Second World War. Now in its fourth generation, the team originally began researching 724 Boston-area men with whom they have met every two years in order to measure various factors such as income levels and self-reported quality of life, as well as tracking medical records. As the years have gone on, the study has come to include the original participants’ spouses and children. Pouring over the mountains of data that the study has already produced, research team has determined conclusively that the single greatest factor that has contributed to longevity, continued mental and physical health, as well has happiness levels, is a sense of personal connection to other human beings. Even when controlling for other factors, those who live in satisfying relationships with their partners and have more social connections tend to live longer, happier lives, as well as maintain their cognitive faculties further into their elderly years, compared to those whose lives are more isolated.
From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Like the majority of our other great ape cousins, human beings evolved as pack animals. Without the considerable size of many of the mammals with whom we have shared our habitats, it became necessary to form tight-knit groups for both protection and hunting purposes. As John Cacioppo shows in his book Loneliness, to be separated or cast out of the group was essentially a death sentence for our ancestors. The lost sapiens who did not feel the need to find his tribe again had a much higher chance of either starving to death or becoming some other creature’s lunch, and would thus have a much more difficult time surviving long enough to pass on his genes to a new generation of loners. An individual whose stress hormones caused such an event to feel highly unpalatable would immediately begin to seek out human company again in order to relieve that sense of stress. For this reason, it became important not only to keep track of the tribe and not get lost, but also to maintain a good social standing within the group in order to avoid becoming an outcast; therefore, our brains have evolved a number of techniques to help us navigate our complex social structures.
For example, our highly-developed cerebral cortex allocates a considerable proportion of real estate to neurons dedicated to recognising the faces of other human beings. It was important for our ancestors to be able to distinguish a member of our own clan from a potentially harmful stranger; consequently, faces get our attention more quickly and more easily than just about anything else we might see. (This, by the way, is why we tend to see facial features in inanimate objects so often.)
Human beings’ sensitivity to other faces became so highly sophisticated over the course of the species’ development that it has essentially become a form of telepathy. Mother nature programmed us with the ability to read the glances of the eyes, the lines of smiles and frowns, and the furrowing of brows to a remarkable degree; moreover, natural selection wired us with this face-recognition acuity early enough in our species' development that both facial expressions and our ability to read them are universal. According to well-known studies done in the 1960s by psychologist Paul Ekman, even culturally isolated tribes like the Fore in Papua New Guinea could correctly and easily interpret the emotions portrayed in photographs of Western faces. This disproved the prevailing theory that we owe our ability to interpret facial expressions to cultural conditioning; on the contrary, we have developed this faculty as a major means not only to navigate our social positioning within our own groups, but also to quickly assess whether the intentions of unknown individuals might be benign or sinister.
In fact, this visual valuation happens far more quickly than we are even aware. Research by John T Serences has also made it clear that the sense of sight does not serve simply as a unbiased collector of information. In the very first part of the visual cortex which receives visual signals (V1), your brain assigns a value to each stimulus that your eyes provide—even before the rest of the visual hardware of the brain has an opportunity to develop what we see into a fully-formed, identifiable image. If you look at an apple, for example, V1 decides—subconsciously and based on prior reward experience—whether it is good or bad, useful or dangerous, fractions of a second before you can even recognise it as an apple.
What holds true for a piece of fruit likely applies even more thoroughly to a face—and when it comes to the faces of those we do not know, V1’s valuation may typically result in a stress response rather than a sense of comfort. In fact, for ninety-nine percent of human history, our evolution has programmed us to treat virtually all strangers as potential threats—and this impulse has not simply disappeared in the modern era. As Bertrand Russell points out in The Conquest of Happiness, our built-in defensive layer in the presence of strangers is perhaps one of the most endemic sources of psychological fatigue for those of us who live in cities.
The natural instinct of man, as of other animals, is to investigate every stranger of his species, with a view to deciding whether to behave to him in a friendly or hostile manner. This instinct has to be inhibited by those who travel in the subway in the rush hour, and the result of inhibiting it is that they feel a general diffused rage against all the strangers with whom they are brought into this involuntary contact…Consequently by the time the office is reached and the day’s work begins, the black-coated worker already has frayed nerves and a tendency to view the human race as a nuisance.
This familiar scene, along with many others, brings to mind Sartre’s famous dictum “L’enfer, c’est les autres.”
So how do we reconcile these biological realities with the evidence that being alone is, to all intents and purposes, the worst possible thing for our health? I’m going to assume that quitting your city life and moving into a close-knit commune does not sit high on your list of options, although that might certainly help. But aside from that possibility, I do have a number of thoughts.
The first is rather simple. In the Harvard study, the researchers have noticed that those who live with partners or close to family members not only tend to become ill less frequently, but that when they do become ill or have some degree of pain, the physical symptoms are less likely to affect their emotional state. Put another way, poor health does not lead directly to unhappiness for those who are socially connected, whereas lonelier individuals tend to have a greater degree of correspondence between physical and emotional pain. To me, this would seem to indicate that trusted human companionship can mitigate the physical stressors associated with the perpetual presence of strangers. Among other factors, I feel that oxytocin may have a role to play here.
The peptide hormone oxytocin, which the brain produces in famous quantities during childbirth and breastfeeding for both mother and child, floods the system in moments of intimacy between partners and even as a result of eye contact between humans and their canine companions! Oxytocin therefore plays a key role in bonding, as it creates a sense of trust between people, and in turn that sense of trust promotes the release of even more oxytocin. But the power of the hormone does not stop there: research also indicates that high levels of oxytocin correlate to increased pain tolerance and decreased blood pressure in rodents. Considering the potency of this self-produced, socially-activated substance, I think it possible that it acts as a rather powerful antidote to the stress-inducing effects of both urban overstimulation and loneliness.
Moreover, it may prove constructive to know that we can expand our idea of whom we can consider a part of our family. In fact, we do not need to look all that far into the past in order to discover an individual who was a common ancestor to us all. This 1999 paper by Yale statistician Joseph Chang, along with a 2002 article in The Atlantic about Chang’s work, demonstrates that all living Europeans are direct descendants of Charlemagne. While this may seem like an incredible claim, it becomes undeniable when you look at the statistics: if we calculate the doubling of our ancestors (two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc.) generation by generation, the number of ancestors you would reach during Charlemagne’s lifetime (747-814 CE) would reach close to a trillion—which easily outnumbers the sum total of people who have ever been alive. The obvious upshot is that, in the last twelve hundred years, there has been a fair bit of interbreeding. Steve Olson explains in the Atlantic article:
The most recent common ancestor of every European today (except for recent immigrants to the Continent) was someone who lived in Europe in the surprisingly recent past—only about 600 years ago. In other words, all Europeans alive today have among their ancestors the same man or woman who lived around 1400. Before that date, according to Chang’s model, the number of ancestors common to all Europeans today increased, until, about a thousand years ago, a peculiar situation prevailed: 20 percent of the adult Europeans alive in 1000 would turn out to be the ancestors of no one living today (that is, they had no children or all their descendants eventually died childless); each of the remaining 80 percent would turn out to be a direct ancestor of every European living today.
And as a result, if you are of European descent, you can count Charlemagne, as well as four-fifths of the European population alive at that time, amongst your great great…great grandparents. Which suggests not only that Lorde was mistaken when she stated, literally on the record, that royalty “don’t run in our blood,” but also that you and every other European are essentially cousins. And according to Chang’s calculations, even if you are not European, we need look back only about 3200 years to discover, statistically at least, an individual who was a common ancestor to everyone on this planet.
I find these facts both mind-blowing and inspiring. Three millennia is less than the blink of an eye in the history of the human race, not to mention the three-and-a-half billion year history of life itself. Holding this knowledge in my mind and in my heart helps me to remember that, in spite of apparent differences, the individuals that surround me are cut from the same cloth. And while that intellectual knowledge may not quell your irritation when the arrival of a latecomer to yoga class means that you have to reposition your mat, perhaps it can serve as motivation to engage in practices such as compassion meditation, which neuroscientists have correlated with both structural and functional changes in the brain which appear to increase the prevalence of altruistic behaviour. It seems possible to me that similar results may eventually indicate that, even on the structural level of the brain, we may be somewhat able to re-program a more compassionate V1 to give even the thousand faces of strangers a subconscious "pro-value" instead of pre-judging them a source of stress.
The world is only getting smaller, and finding a way to connect with each other in meaningful ways is growing all the more important. Armed with knowledge and intention, yoga and open minds may help us eventually transform the globe into our satsang.
I shall leave you with a few more words from Betrand Russell.