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Home > Unfolding Consciousness > Spirituality & the Tamil Nation > Thinking with the Heart - and Pillai Tamizh
Spirituality & the Tamil Nation
Thinking With the Heart - and Pillai Tamizh
An unexpected title? Almost counter-intuitive? I can only advise you to put on your seat belts, carry your thinking heart and feeling brain with you and we undertake this flight of fancy together. And when you land, you may have an enhanced awareness of the phenomenal complexity of your mind and a value for the human being's coherence, connectedness wholeness.
In the last two decades, I have been introduced to the writings of several outstanding brain workers of our time, including Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, Marvin Minsky, Carl Sagan, Karl Pribram and more recently, Daniel Goleman and Antonio Damasio. Their ideas have set one's mind free, pulling out the anchor of everyday reality and presenting one with different landscapes. On many occasions, I have shared the excitement of my journey into the human cranium with my students (who I hope have forgiven me for straying from prescribed readings and curriculum and imposing my then current reading on them). Some of those students responded to the introduction of 'mind' books and started to buy the books that were mentioned in class. I recall a period, when C.D. students in the M.Sc. courses considered as the only reasonable wedding present for a class fellow, a copy of Charles Hampden- Turner's Maps of the Mind!
The ideas for this paper come from many sources and are acknowledged with humility. I will begin with a brief presentation of what Damasio calls "Descartes' Error". The human being is a complex living organism with a body proper ("body" for short) and a nervous system ("brain" for short). Of course, the brain is a part of the body, but for the discussion that follows, body is organism minus neural tissue. The brain and the body are integrated by both biochemical and neural circuits. The sensory and motor peripheral nerves carry signals from every part of the body to the brain, and in turn receive signals from the brain. This is known to us. The biochemical route may not be so obvious to everyone. It is in the blood stream carrying chemical signals such as hormones, neurotransmitters and modulators.
The hippocampus provides a memory of context, vital for emotional meaning. While the hippocampus remembers the dry facts, the amygdala retains the emotional flavour that goes with those facts. The hippocampus is crucial in recognising the face of a familiar person, while the amygdala gives you the emotional feeling about that person. The amygdala is made up of two almond shaped clusters of inter-connected structures just above the brain stem. It serves as a storehouse of emotional memory. Without it we would have a life without personal meaning, without a sense of our own biography.
From the case studies of patients with brain damage, Damasio presents an elegant argument that feelings and emotions are indispensible for rational decisions to be made. The lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same that regulate the processing of emotions, along with the global functions of the body proper, which work for the organism's survival. These lower levels maintain direct and mutual relationships with the body proper, thus ensuring that the body is within the chain of operations that permit the highest reaches of reason as well as of creativity. Damasio says that rationality "is probably shaped and modulated by body signals even as it performs the most sublime distinctions" (p.200).
We are guided to the position that feelings are indispensible for rational decisions. They provide the direction for rational thinking to proceed. The point made here is that intellect cannot work at its best without emotional intelligence. There is no genunine tension between reason and feeling - but only a balance of the two. The computer as a model for the mind could be misleading. In fact, the brain is in a live "pulsating puddle of neurochemicals" as Goleman puts it.
Let us take three types of events occurring to us.
The third situation is clearly different from the first two in its complexity. Descartes would have considered the third as a hallmark of the human spirit, totally outside the body. Most people would assume that the third event involving weighing pros and cons would need a mechanism different from that handling the other two. However, in spite of the obvious differences, there is a shared biological core.
This brings us to Damasio's Somatic Marker Hypothesis. In plain language, one could call this, gut feeling. Before applying any rational analysis to the premises, the somatic marker acts as an alarm signal. There is an immediate rejection of the negative course, by the body, and one can then make a choice among fewer alternatives. Somatic markers thus increase the accuracy and efficiency of the decision process.
While accepting that uncontrolled emotion can be a source of irrational behaviour, Damasio's argument is that reduction in emotionality may constitute an equally important source of irrational behaviour, as the data from prefrontal damage illustrate. With evidence from several cases of neurobiological impairment, and a lucid, logical testing of the hypothesis, Damasio lays out an important theory; that emotion is an integral part of what we call cognition.
If there is an impairment in emotion, there is no rationality. Somatic markers give both pleasant and unpleasant signals. In other words, if there is a situation with a future advantage, but the immediate is unpleasant, there will be a positive somatic marker. For a potentially better future, one endures some unpleasantness temporarily. If such positive somatic markers were not in existence, how would anyone accept to undergo surgery or register for a Ph.D. degree?
In this context, we may recall Charles Darwin's dilemma when in his forties, he considered proposing to a young woman he knew. Being trained to be systematic, he made a list of points against and points for marriage. There were about fifteen reasons why he should not marry and only four points in favour. After studying the list carefully, he decided to get married! Clearly, his somatic marker worked for him.
This partnership between "cognitive" and "emotional" processes should now be apparent to everyone. In fact, the linkage is both parsimonious and elegant in that it encompasses the concepts of will power and altruism as well. When one has several response options, choosing according to long term outcomes, rather than short term ones is an operational definition of will power. Altruism - being good to others - will probably result in enhanced self esteem, public honour and affection.
Thinking about the rewards is followed by a good feeling (the neural basis of which is a somatic marker). Altruism may also involve the choice between immediate pain and even worse future pain, for example a sense of shame upon not behaving altruistically. These explanations of the cognitive - emotional link should not be seen as reducing noble sentiments to neurobiological mechanisms; rather they should be valued for clarifying a brain process, knowing which does not diminish the value or dignity of that behaviour.
What then was Descartes' error? His oft-quoted "Cogito ergo sum" suggests that thinking and the awareness of thinking are the real substrates of being. Descartes considered thinking to be an activity quite separate from the body. Thus his statement, "I think, therefore I am" emphasises the separation of mind, the thinking thing (res cogitans), from the non-thinking part, which has extension and mechanical parts (res extensa). This separation of the operation of mind from the structure and operation of the biological organism is, in fact, the Cartesian error.
Thinking and the Immune System
As many of you may recall, we in the Dept. of Child Development have trained ourselves to distrust all dichotomies, including the Cartesian one. We have discussed a vast quantum of data on psychosomatic illnessess, like asthma, anorexia and allergy, where stress was seen to be related to the manifestation of the symptoms. There were, equally, somato-psychic illnesses, where the condition of the body clearly influenced the state of mind and emotional expression.
Bernie Siegel in his book "Love, Medicine & Miracles" (1986) uses the word soma significant for what has been termed psychosomatic. Siegel describes various instances when the body listens to the brain. The mental pictures patients use to describe themselves play a role in the creation of their conditions.Some examples follow: A mastectomy patient told him she needed "to get something off her chest". A man with cancer of the larynx said that as a child, his father constantly squeezed his throat, telling him to "shut up". A person who got some bad news on the telephone, said " I can't bear to hear it", and lost his hearing temorarily.
Experiments with a placebo have consistently upheld the importance of the person's own thinking. The placebo effect has been referred to as the healing power of nothing at all. There are several medical studies where aspirin and placebo have been administered in double blind experiments. In 54% of the cases, the placebo was as good a treatment as the analgesic. Even with a Morphine study, 56% of the cases of persons receiving the placebo showed the morphine effect. In the case of surgery for Angina Pectoris, sham and real operations had the same effect. All these are cited in detail in the "Holographic Universe" by Michael Talbot (1991).
We see clearly that the mind is a powerful thing. In addition to offering us a glimpse of this power, the use of placebo also supports a more holographic approach to understanding the mind/body relationships. Jane Brody says "the effectiveness of placebos provides dramatic support for a holistic view of the human organism, the view that is receiving increasing attention in medical research. This view holds that the mind and body continually interact and are too closely interwoven to be treated as independent entities" (cited in Talbot, 1991).
This area is at the frontier of medical research and new discoveries are being made everyday. At a Conference in 1990 on PNI (Psychoneuroimmunology) - the science that studies the way the mind, the nervous system and the immune system interact, Candace Pert, who had already published papers in this area from 1987 onwards, announced to the delegates that immune cells have neuropeptide receptors. These neuropeptides are roughly, the brain's telegrams. The existence of receptors (telegram receivers) on the cells in our immune system implies that the immune system is an extension of the brain. Pert admits that she can no longer tell where the brain leaves off and the body begins (cited in Talbot, 1991).
The main thesis of the relatively new field of psycho-neuro-immunology is that the mental state, through the nervous system affects the immune system of the body. Thus ecstasy as well as hopelessness, considered as states of mind, describe more clearly a mind-body state. The mood or mind-state informs every part of the body - one could say that it is in every cell. Medical science, all over the world, accepts that a large number of diseases are stress related (2), and that meditation and positive mental imagery are conducive to faster healing and recovery. Even music therapy is being tried out and some studies report a drop in cholesterol levels of heart patients so treated. In this area, a frontier area for modern allopathic medicine, but long integral to the alternative systems, there is a vast quantum of data. Only a minority of hard core medical practitioners may still need to be convinced of the implications of PNI findings.
The reasons for scepticism about the immediate connection between thinking and feeling may have come from the Papez - Maclean theory of brain evolution (Hampden-Turner, 1981). We have three brains, the reptilian, the paleo-mammalian and the neo-mammalian. The reptilian brain, a creature of habit, almost a slave to precedent, seems to contain the ancestral lore of the species. The old mammalian brain consists of the limbic system which registers rewards and punishments, is the seat of emotions and controls the body's autonomic nervous system. On top of all this is our very own "thinking cap" - the neocortex. MacLean is quoted as saying "Speaking allegorically, we might imagine that when a psychiatrist bids the patient to lie on the couch, he is asking him to stretch out alongside a horse and a crocodile" (cited in Hampden-Turner, 1981, p. 81).
These vertical connections and coordination were considered inadequate; hence a split between reason and emotion. MacLean terms this dissociation between newer and older brains as schizo-physiology. (The way intelligence of children has been assessed in the past makes one wonder if the science of psychometry should not be called schizo-psychology).
Howard Gardner of Harvard University proposes that intelligence is not monolithic but there is a wide spectrum of intelligences: verbal, mathematical-logical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal and intra-psychic (cited in Goleman, 1995).
In 1978, when I completed my research study on families of craftsmen, Socialization for Competence, I made a comment in the last chapter "Dialogue with the Unknown Reader" that while I undertook the study treating individual competence as the focus, many of the families in my sample, seemed to have a different emphasis: they seem to have anticipated one aspect of the seven mentioned by Gardner, and in fact, were stating that in addition to a person's ability and skill,interpersonal competence was important. Now in retrospect, I see that they valued emotional intelligence, not just individual ability. At that time I thought that they reflected a cultural value for group harmony. However, the universal applicability of intelligent emotions is now apparent.
In 1979, when based on some preliminary research on children's assertion and aggression (energy which is channelised in prosocial or antisocial ways) one of the conclusions I had made was that if the rewards and punishments given by parents were verbally contexted by them, the child was likely to use his energy for leadership, sports and other activities generally valued in society. If these reinforcements, positive or negative, were administered without explanation, some conditioning would take place, and possibly the unapproved behaviour brought under control. But parents who give physical punishment often do so when they are upset or when they personally feel some frustration or stress. The child is often puzzled (also humiliated and angry) and one should not be surprised to find such a child hitting out at his peers and doing things which incur the wrath of adults and evoke the fear of children.
By explaining verbally and putting the child's behaviour and the parental response into the social context, a connection is made vertically from the old brain to the new. Socialization, when it is effective transforms the experience into a meaningful one. At that time, I introduced my paper (1979) quoting Freud, who said "Anatomy is destiny" and suggested that the brain and the neocortex in particular were also anatomical structures and were indeed proving to be destiny. Now in view of the contemporary advances in this subject, I can edit my earlier statement and say that brain structures and functions in the widest sense are indeed predictors of human destiny.
Teaching Children to have Intelligent Emotions
Let us now move to implications and practical applications of some of the concepts discussed here. As child development students, we would be interested in whether, while rearing and educating children, we can give them a headstart for life. Goleman (1996) uses the term heartstart. I am still looking for a more apt phrase. Parents who are emotionally adept can indeed help their children with the basics of emotional intelligence: recognising and managing their feelings, developing empathy, and handling interpersonal relationships. Emotional competence starts to develop in the cradle, along with all other facets and seems largely contingent upon good parenting. T. Berry Brazelton, spokesman for infants and an eminent, warm hearted pediatrician from Harvard has described and filmed the earliest experience of life showing how parental treatment influences the infant's feeling of joy and wellbeing or of joylessness and despair.
Studies have reported the finding that school success is not determined by the child's ability to read at an earlier age than usual, or the child's stock of information. Rather emotional and social intelligence seems to make the difference. The specific aspects of emotional intelligence are as follows: being interested, having self confidence, knowing how and when to seek help from teachers or other adults, being able to wait, follow instructions and work with the group.
Goleman has made a list of ingredients for a child to make a successful entry into school. I have changed the labels and the ordering for ease in remembering, by having them all start with the letter C. The seven C's are Conviviality, Communication, Cooperativeness, Confidence, Curiosity, Competence and Control.
A child who arrives in school with these attributes clearly has a headstart for enjoying school and benefitting from it. In fact, if we study the list carefully, they could as well apply to adults. They could serve as the criteria for recruiting a teacher or social worker, or for that matter, selecting a partner. The seven C's constitute sound psychological health and those who have cultivated these would be good leaders as well as good followers. The seven C's are thus equally good predictors of happiness and success in adulthood, since they reflect not only the acquisition of emotional literacy, but emotional competence.
The Magical Mystery Tour called Play
It may seem easier to instruct children in literacy (teaching them to read and write and to handle numbers) than to 'instruct' them in emotional literacy. But nature has provided a happy solution - letting the children play. Play becomes the serious syllabus to be pursued and is the sum of extra curricular activities. It is also the medium of instruction! One does not need to motivate a child to play. The young of all species, especially mammals, play naturally. Thus there is intrinsic motivation for play and it is sought after spontaneously. In play, the child is actively engaged. In this sense it is different from day dreaming, which while involving the imagination, is not active. Play is different from games; the latter are governed by external rules, while the codes of play are continuously reconstructed by the children themselves. Play can also be distinguished from exploratory activity. The question a child asks in play is not "What is this object?" but "What can I do with it?"
The integrative value of play is seen not only in intellectual development but also in self construction and personality formation. Play serves very important ego integrative functions. For example, play-fighting is instrumental in learning how to inhibit aggressive tendencies. In play there is no evaluation, no fear of failure. Non literality is the key ingredient of play.
The current push of children for mastery of skills at an accelerated pace leaves very little time for play. This trend may be one of our most serious disservices to children in this generation.
Homo sapiens (wise man) depends upon play for his ability to become wise. Home sapiens who is not appropriately Homo ludens may become nothing more than Homo erectus; walking on two limbs, doubtless an indication of his position on the phylogenetic scale, but not using his essentially human endowment - to learn through play. However, it must be remembered that means are more relevant than ends in play. So it is not what is learnt through play that is important, but how playing itself is done. I have tried to put this in the form of free verse which I present here for your indulgence.
Traditional Sources of Child Development - I : Kashyapa Samhita
I would like to change gears and make a reference to some material that I have been researching into, in the last two or three years. It is perhaps necessary for the self image of scientists in India to recognise that knowledge does not flow only in one direction from West to East. I tried my best, while I was teaching at the Lady Irwin College, to convince students that they must redefine the concept of knowledge and be willing to accept knowledge even from folklore or other sources, or knowledge from an Indian perspective, even if it puts a conventional scientific paradigm on its head. The problem, the students pointed out, was that no readings were available. Towards that end, I began looking for traditional source material on child development. I decided to begin with two Indian languages that I am most familiar with - Tamizh and Sanskrit. What I present here is only a sample of what is available.
The first is an extract from Kashyapa Samhita, which is considered to be of the same approximate period as Susruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita (second to fourth century A.D.) The Kashyapa Samhita is attributed to four Rishis: Kashyapa, Atri, Vasishta and Bhrigu. It is a compendium on pediatrics. A very small part of it concerns normal development and the rites associated with it. In this section, health problems are not mentioned, but the rituals connected with infant development find a place. It is the closest one can get to material on child development in this text which I have translated into English.
In the first month of the child's existence, the neonatal period, there is to be a Raksha Homam - a ritual sacrificial fire for asking the Gods to protect the newborn. Mangalacharan and Svasthivachan follow this ie. a prayer for an auspicious future and for the child's good health. In the first month, the infant also gets his first vision of sunrise, and is shown the moon on the 13th day - two days before the full moon.
In the fourth month, the infant is given a bath, dressed in new clothes and given a small amount of gorochana (a mixture of white mustard, honey and ghee). Then the child is taken out of the house for a visit to the local temple. There a havan is arranged and Vishnu, Skanda and the Kuladevatas are propitiated. The Gurus are worshipped.
When returning, as the child enters the house, all the assembled people say "May we live a hundred years! Let the Gods protect us! May we have the blessings of the twice born and may we bring joy to the Gurus".
In the sixth month, an auspicious day should be selected and the brahmins given daan and dakshina (presents and money). Then a central place in the house is identified, cleaned and ritually purified. In the place cleaned thus, beads of gold, silver, pearls, corals, copper, bronze and other metals are arranged. Likewise, grains of many varieties. Then, toys are made out of maida or khoya in several animal shapes: cow, elephant, camel, horse, donkey, buffalo, frog, goat, deer, pig, monkey, tiger, cheetah, fox, tortoise, fish, then bird shapes of parakeet, mynah, koel, chakravaka, swan, krauncha, crane, peacock, chakora, kapinjal and duck. Objects such as house, chariot, rock and human figures of girls, boys, men and women are also included in the toys laid out for the child's choice.
The first part of the ritual is invoking the blessings of Earth Mother thus "Oh Earth - you are the prime one! You are abundant without decrease. You are the protector of all growing things. You are the nourisher. You must protect this child. Let the Gods bless him". The child, bathed, decorated and wearing new clothes is placed in the centre of the square. Whatever object the child picks up with his hands - will reflect what he chooses in the future. Later in life, he will be involved in a vocation, the glimmerings of which are revealed in infancy. After the child has indicated his future vocation, he plays with other children, using moving toys that are light, have no sharp edges and make a pleasant sound with bells and tinkles attached to them. The instructions in the medical compendium include that the child should not be left long doing any one thing (like sitting in one position for long). If the child is left on the earthen floor for a long time, germs and insects that create disease may affect the child or he may get scared of snakes, scorpions or rats. Flies and mosquitoes may bother him.
Annaprasana or the first feeding, is also a ritual for the sixth month. There are many variations of this, which are currently in practice. So I cite only the version from Kashyapa Samhita.
In the sixth month let the child savour the juice of several fruits. Later, after the teeth have come, give him cooked rice with the finely prepared flesh of chicken or partridge. Feed the child three or five mouthfuls.
In the 12th month when the child wishes to have rice - he should be given rice or other grain varieties, mixed with a little oil or ghee and salt. An instruction that follows.
"Feed the child reglarly, but also whenever he is hungry".
So what do we derive from this brief listing? That 18 centuries ago, God's blessings were invoked for the newborn's health, wellbeing and longevity. That the child was made aware of the environment - the sun and the moon. That there was both physical and mental preparation for an event like indication of choices for life, which may be directed by innate tendencies, or Svadharma.
There was a high level of participation in these rites of passage by all members of the family. Surely they were a talented lot to be able to make those several animals and birds out of maida! Doubtless the rituals mentioned here also imply some level of affluence and privilege.
Traditional Sources of Child Development - II : Pillai Tamizh
The second source is Pillai Tamizh. I was greatly enthusiastic when I found that a genre of poetry is so labelled. I expected then to find descriptions of children and some concepts in child development. Especially when I discovered that there were more than a hundred of this category availabe, I was hopeful of extracting some principles of the science of child development. However, I must admit to some level of disappointment as descriptions of childhood per se were minimal.
As early as the 9th century, one can find references to Pillai Tamizh. Some prefer to use a 12th century manuscript, which contains 10 verses on each of the 10 stages in childhood as setting the pattern for the poems of praise or devotion. In a manner of speaking, each stage or paruvam was to have 10 verses describing the early childhood of god, goddess, scholar, poet or king. In recent years, even political leaders ike Gandhiji and MGR have verses in the structure of Pillai Tamizh written about them.
It is an interesting point to note that there are Islamic and Christian versions and verses addressed to Mohammed and to Jesus Christ can be found. It is thus a poetic structure that cuts across religions.
However, not even one poet manages to give details of infancy, or to keep the 10 verses in each stage as descriptions of that stage. Rather, the stages of infancy have been incorporated into poetic structure.
The subject of the praise is visualised as a child, but as in much of traditional verse, lyrics for classical music and prayers, there is a high level of juxtaposition of content. While referring to the God as infant, the verse may also include some heroism or exploits of the god in adulthood. This non linearity of text is seen not only in Sanskrit and Tamil verse, but in music and poetry in all Indian languages.
Addressing and praising a god or a king in the form of a baby is meant to express closeness and love for the chosen deity or person, who is considered to be both accessible and responsive. The stage, paruvam constitutes the infant's level of development, the rites or ceremonies attached to that level, the play activities and the interaction with parents at that age. The labels given to each stage reflect people's close observation of infancy, and the incorporation of the stages being structured into poetic style is evidence for the wide understanding of infant development. I will refer here only to the first seven stages of the ten usually constituting Pillai Tamizh.
The stages given below will substantiate what has been said.
Tamizh Stages Age of infant
In the Kappu paruvam - the protection of the gods is invoked for the infant. Some families put on the child's wrist, a Kappu (bangle) made of neem-leaf. Others use gold or silver. The term Kappu, refers in common usage today, to the little bangle that the infant wears, as a symbol of protection.
In the Senkirai Paruvam (5th month) the child is described as moving like a creeper. His crawling and swaying bring delight. In 7th month, the Talaparuvam, the baby is encouraged to prattle. Tal means tongue and the movement of the tongue in the beginnings of language is the main development of this stage. The word Talattu means lullaby in Tamizh - because it is often accompanied by the swinging of the crib or hammock. It is also a period when the baby is responsive to the singing of lullabies. The 9th month sees the child bringing both hands together to make a clapping sound. This is the stage when adults ask the baby to clap and help along gently for the baby to bring the hands together in a clap. A variety of clapping games are introduced by the mother and others.
Muthaparuvam - is the 11th month, when the child can purse its lips. The parents ask the child for a kiss.
The next stage, in the 12th or 13th month is Varugai or Varanai - the child's first steps in walking. The parents invite the child to come walking towards them.
The seventh stage is placed in the 18th month and is called Ambuli or Moon stage.
It involves the mother's asking to moon to come and be a playmate to the child. For persuading the moon, the mother uses the four traditional socialization techniques: sama, dana, bheda, dandam.
In the poetic tradition of Pillai Tamizh this stage is considered the most challenging. In my view it is also the most interesting. The child is compared to the moon as bright and beautiful. So the moon, being similar is called down to be a good playmate. Or the moon is chided for not coming down, and told petulantly - "So we will churn the ocean again and get another moon which will play with us".
Pillai Tamizh is domestic and intimate and focusses on close relationships, rather than on individual development per se. It has tenderness and playfulness built into it. It seems to touch on the moon side of our nature - depicting fantasy and evanescence that would disappear in the sharp sunlight of rationality.
We started with a flight metaphor and we seem to have landed on the moon. Let us return to earth, eschewing reductionistic science and compartmentalised human attributes, and with a fundamental self regard and an appreciation for how integrated each of us is within ourselves. From this point to integrating historically with our own past tradition and our present cultural state, to feeling integrated socially with the varieties of people encounter should not be impossible.
Lets feel-think together and think-feel in harmony. Lets have a holomovement.