Are we zombie, or are we human?

The current deluge of zombie flicks, tv shows, graphic publications and video games, not to mention an incalculable array of of consumer products from T shirts to halloween get ups document our cultural fascination with animated bodies that
 move about without conscious, driven only by frantic, subhuman cravings. The idea of zombies has been found in African and South American cultures for hundreds of years. In 1932 a Bela Lugosi’s ‘White Zombie’ was a huge success for an independent film, finding box office success in both small town cinemas and big cities. In 1974 the great Nigerian, afrobeat singer Fela scored his success with the album and track ‘Zombie,’ using it as a metaphor for the Nigerian military.

While the idea of an unknown force taking over the mind is a staple of the horror genre, the idea is actually neither ludicrous nor far fetched. In philosophy, zombies are thought experiments used to discuss the degree to which conscious awareness is separate from the physical world, and capable of controlling our actions. Zombies provide us with an important tool for reflection: when are we really alive and conscious, authorizing our actions, and when are we essentially undead bodies, running on autopilot?

In an early attempt to answer this question, 2,500 years ago, The Buddha proposed an entirely new hypothesis of awareness being separate from the concept of a self or a soul. The bold idea was that the mind tends to fixate on fleeting conditions in search of a lasting identity: we cling to body states, feelings, perceptions, sense data, moods and thoughts, none of which are constant entities in the mind. His hypothesis was novel, yet straightforward: when we let go of mulling over “who am I?” and all the attendant reciting our inner autobiographies, we can focus instead on developing our greatest faculty, mindfulness, which is a form of awareness separate from our thoughts, the faculty of apprehension that makes us truly human.

Mindfulness is a detached form of awareness, that which observes and notes what occurs in present experience. Mindfulness essentially vanishes when it is hooked and pulled entirely into the busyness of thoughts, fears, external circumstances or physical conditions.

When the mind is working optimally, various subconscious regions of the brain are left to take charge of the bulk of our decisions throughout the day. A wide variety of important tasks are relegated to systems working behind the curtain of awareness: we are kept breathing, monitoring the body for heat, hunger, discomforts, noting the passing time, spacial orientation with the world around us and on. The neural circuits that conduct much of the show occur outside the realm of the brain’s frontal cortex; in fact many of these functions are overseen by the brain’s survival regions, which also produce our emotional responses. The role of mindfulness is like that of a wise business owner: to observe the events of day to day life and to step in when necessary to make important decisions: for example, to override our ingrained impulses to avoid difficulties and, instead, to wade into learning opportunities and worthwhile challenges.

Meanwhile, the narrative thread that gives us an illusion of continuity is provided by self-talk, our inner dialogue that comments on life, similar to a voice over beneath the images of a film. (For the neuroscience buff, self talk is generated by Broca’s and Wernicke’s regions of the left prefrontal and temporal cortex, along with other regions, to create.) So we are held together as individuals not by any behavioral consistency, but by a storytelling apparatus in the brain that rushes in to explain most of our actions after the fact.

It's important to note that self-talk, or our thought based commentaries about life, is NOT the same as mindfulness, the workings of the brain that provide our greatest wisdom, insight, acts of compassion and generosity.

When we are running in our calmest, optimum mode, our self-narration allow us enough bandwidth to consider important decisions, setting worthwhile intentions that lead to lasting happiness and comfort for ourselves and others. Such an inner voice, to function optimally, doesn’t overthink and use up too much of our conscious resources; the more we fall into the trap of obsessive, repetitive inner speech, the less resources we have available for monitoring our circumstances and intervening with new and creative strategies.

Unfortunately, our inner dialogue often falls into destructive thought patterns that needlessly create stress by switching on the brain’s fear subsystem, the amygdala, and engaging all of its survival tools— adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, the parasympathetic nervous system and all the body systems under its control. The more we focus on dark scenarios, unlikely threats or limiting self-observations, the more we trigger our survival apparatus. This means that we cede control of all our behavior to subconscious survival regions, nullifying awareness; we become entirely reactive, rather than responsive. (Reactivity is a state wherein we are driven by habitually ingrained actions without choice; responsiveness is a state where more than one possible reciprocation is considered before acted upon; which affords us the capacity to make conscious decisions now and then.)

When we kick into survival mode, subconscious mechanisms override the higher cortex of the brain—that which makes us human and allows us the possibility of kindness, appreciation, equanimity and compassion—and we turn our actions over to preestablished survival strategies (fight, flight or freeze) stored in older regions of the brain. In essence we become zombies, scratching and clawing our way out of situations wherein we feel threatened.

How we narrate our lives and talk to ourselves in effect determines, to a significant degree, how much control over our lives the higher mind maintains; under the gun, caught up stress stories and fear narratives, we are essentially automatons running on dated programs. We are zombies as the result of our tendency to judge, criticize and self-limit weakens the neural links we maintain to our inner resources.

Fortunately, the thought patterns that strip us of awareness and render us essentially empty beings on autopilot are easy to spot, as they have significant features in common:

• They activate our survival responses, which are easy to spot via the change in breathing from slow and deep to shallow, even hyperventilation.
• They result in emotional states that undermine our sense of security inside, such as speculating about the future.
• They trigger an armored somatic posture, wherein shoulders become constricted, muscles in the arms and legs tightened, the chest collapsed and the stomach contracted.
• They switch off body systems not directly involved in survival, such as digestion and white blood cell development.
• They deny us access to our highest and most rewarding outlooks: compassion, appreciation, the very positivity that leads toward a healthier and more contented life.

So we are faced with a decision: are we to cultivate our humanity, or live as the undead, driven by our basest drives alone? One of the most beneficial ways to begin a spiritual practice is to maintain appropriate awareness (yoniso manasikara to the buddha) over the story we’re telling about our lives. The way we frame our experience can literally not only change how we perceive the world, but also make the difference from living the life of a zombie, versus that of a compassionate and serene human being.