Equilibrium

From an essay by Andrew Olendski, “The Non-pursuit of Happiness”:

A system’s health or well-being, which at the human scale we call happiness, might be simply defined as a state of equilibrium between inner and outer states.

Which brings us to the two strategies for achieving happiness: One is to change the external environment to meet the needs (or wants) of the organism; the other is to change the internal state of the organism to adapt itself to the environment. We can either change the world to satisfy our desires, or change our desires by adapting to the world. Both strategies aim at removing the agitation of desires, one by fulfilling them and the other by relinquishing them.

Because we are so imbued with the notion that happiness is something to be pursued by the continual transformation of the external, it can sound odd to hear the Buddha talk of uncovering happiness within. He acknowledged the inevitable presence of disequilibrium, which he called dukkha or suffering, but suggested we seek out its internal adjustments. According to the Buddha’s analysis, it is not the objective discrepancy between the internal and the external conditions that is the source of unhappiness; it is the desire for the external to change (or to not change, as the case may be), which is itself an internal state. Conditions in the world are notoriously unstable and subject to forces beyond our control, while internal desires are intimate and more accessible. It is simply more efficient to adapt to the world than to alter it.

Let’s try giving the world a rest from our restless need to transform it, and work a bit more on changing ourselves. I trust the Buddha’s promise that by doing so we will be happier in the long run.

This is a re-statement, in a different voice, of the point made in the previous post. My hope is that by examining our situation from different angles we can slowly adjust our default attitude from “It shouldn’t be like this” to “Perhaps I can reduce my desire for things to be other than as they are”.

In order to make that move, we have to become familiar enough with our minds to believe that they are malleable, that how we react to things is not immutable, but can be changed. This is a delicate and somewhat mysterious business. It may have to do with deliberately softening our attitudes, with examining the internal and external more closely, with replacing judgment with curiosity, and with other strategies we discover for ourselves.

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Liking and not-liking

Today we take a closer look at liking and not-liking, those immediate feelings that haunt our every thought, whether at a conscious or subconscious level. These mental phenomena are the expression, in our bodies and minds, of the first two hindrances: sense-desire and ill-will.

From (book) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari:

Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions.

According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel, craving to experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding pain. Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether scratching our leg, fidgeting slightly in the chair, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings.

The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.

…the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction.

…People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.

Once again, wisdom is offered from an unanticipated source. As macro-historian Harari says: we “ascribe immense importance to what [we] feel”. Give the truth of that statement a moment to sink in. How aware are we of the stream of feelings of liking and not-liking that push and pull us throughout the day? What is our relationship to them? Are they entirely in control or can we sometimes see that they are passing phenomena?

We can develop the skill needed to look at the inner workings of our minds from a less personal (identified) perspective, but it takes practice. We need daily reminders to turn our attention inward, away from the insistent seductions of the outer world. Next time, I’ll offer a couple of ideas about how to establish such a practice. Meanwhile, if you have practices that are working for you, please share them.

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Skillful suffering

When we are feeling bad, what do we do? Whether the cause is physical or mental, we either turn towards or (more likely) turn away from the cause of our distress. There are many ways in which we can push away or ignore feelings that we don’t like. We can engage in our favourite distracting activity – watch television, surf the web, eat too much, go to sleep, indulge in intoxicants, etc. We can get very active – clean the house, exercise, etc. But if whatever is bothering us is serious, it won’t disappear, it will just come back when we run out of distraction-energy.

Another important way that we avoid looking at our clinging/dukkha is by blaming someone else: “She shouldn’t do/say that!”, “I won’t be treated that way.”, or “He’s just a jerk.”

It may feel radical to turn towards our suffering, to say to ourselves, “What am I avoiding? What is it that I’m not-liking right now?” But this would be the most skillful way to proceed.

What do we find when we look into unhappiness? We find that we are getting something we don’t want, like a cold or a visit from a difficult person; or that we aren’t getting something we do want, e.g., recognition, another person’s regard or time, or a reward we were counting on. It takes ruthless honesty to admit to ourselves that we feel entitled to something that isn’t forthcoming. We may have to revise a deep and long-held assumption about how things stand in our world. How hard is it to allow the thought that one’s offspring don’t respect and admire us? Or that our manner is taken by some as offensive? Or that we have been behaving in ways that allow others to take advantage of us?

We all have patterns of dukkha; ways in which we meet the world that grind our gears. These are the very points at which the possibility of greater freedom opens up. If we trust in the law of karma, that actions bring results, wholesome or unwholesome, then that trust may help us to face what we are reluctant to acknowledge.

At some level we don’t want to believe that we are polluted by greed, hatred and delusion – but we are. It may be subtle or gross, but until we are fully awakened, those unwholesome roots will continue to tangle us up. We can cruise along for long periods without any dramatic dissatisfaction, but eventually we run up against something we don’t want, or want but can’t have, and we get stuck. It’s these stuck points that grind our gears; but they also direct our attention to the specific clinging we need to dismantle to become (more) free.

What is your dukkha pattern?

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Getting and having

Calvin and Hobbes Getting

Sometimes a cartoonist captures a timeless truth.

One of the major ways that we cause ourselves to suffer is by stimulating our own wanting in various ways. We are inundated with advertising, much of it associated with young, sexy models. We watch shows and read magazines that tell us what is popular now, making us feel left out if we don’t have it. Video games delude us into thinking we are all-powerful, encouraging us to choose “virtual reality” over reality.

One of the advantages of getting older is that often we assign more value to relationships and possessions that we’ve had for a long time and our interest in new stuff diminishes. Our wanting is not eliminated, obviously, but the extreme sensitivity to what is newest and shiniest does seem to abate.

And yet, whether our wanting is passionate or more subtle, it confines us, it keeps us un-free.

Wanting = for me
Generosity = for others

When we find ourselves pinched by wanting things or experiences we don’t or can’t have, we might try turning the tables on desire. Rather than grabbing, collecting, yearning for ownership, we could look for ways to give, to be generous, to put others’ needs at the center of our concerns. This is a remarkably powerful antidote to greed.

A related remedy is a practice that my husband and I have taken on. Whenever we spend extravagantly on ourselves, we make a similar-sized donation where it might be appreciated. In this way we block the notion that “it’s all about me”, and move towards, “it’s about all of us”.

One difficulty when dealing with greed is that wanting is a physical experience. Somehow our whole body and mind can seize up when the thought “I want” appears; it can overwhelm everything else, in the same way that rage can overtake us. The joy that comes from letting go is less dramatic. It’s more like the pleasure we get when we take off a pair of tight shoes at the end of the day. What would it take for us to prefer the deeper pleasure of release over the me-centric drama of desire?

For one thing, it would require that we adjust to the truth that our lives will always be incomplete, not entirely satisfying, a mix of pleasures and pains. When we remember this (a version of the first noble truth) we won’t be so easily drawn into the neurosis of thinking that our satisfaction is just out of reach, just over there. No, just over there…

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Why am I suffering?

When you are suffering, ask: ‘Why am I suffering? Why am I miserable?’ Because you are clinging to something! Find out what you are clinging to, to get to the source. It may be, ‘I’m unhappy because nobody loves me.’ That may be true; maybe nobody does love you, but the unhappiness comes from wanting people to love you. Even if other people do love you, you will still have suffering if you think they are responsible for your happiness or suffering. Someone says: ‘You are the greatest person in the world!’ and you jump for joy. Someone says: ‘You are the most horrible person I’ve met in my life!’ and you’re depressed. Let go of depression, let go of happiness. Keep the practice simple: live your life mindfully and morally, and have faith in letting go.
– from “Letting Go”, a talk by Ajahn Sumedho

This excerpt from a long-ago dhamma talk by Ajahn Sumedho starts by acknowledging that we often suffer without knowing the cause of our suffering. Sometimes it’s obvious – we want the new car that our friend has, or; we wish we had the body of a goddess, or; we take a travel delay personally. But sometimes it takes an unusual sort of thinking to discover the specific form our clinging is taking right now. Maybe there’s fear about what may (or may not) come tomorrow; maybe we have a chronic illness that we’d prefer not to have to manage; maybe we have a problematic relationship that we can’t seem to disentangle ourselves from. Or maybe we just think, ‘Why me?’, as if there needed to be a special reason for dukkha to come to us.

When the Buddha said “I teach suffering…”, he also said “…and the end of suffering.” We are invited to examine our actual feelings, thoughts, and body sensations. Where is the sticking point? In what way do we want our current reality to be different from how it is? We may have to stay with the investigation for some time to see the source of our suffering clearly. Even after we see it, we may need to examine it over a period of time to discover the connection between our desire and the pain it causes.

If our immediate desires are being fulfilled, we may not see that suffering is being generated. Only after the high passes does the low become apparent. Can we see, while we are happy, that sadness or suffering is inextricably linked? Even the pleasure we get from a wonderful book or concert or visit must end with the sadness of separation when the experience is over. Can we live fully all the time, whether we’re currently experiencing pleasure or pain?

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Happiness vs. security

From an essay, “The Search for Security”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi:
It may be a truism of psychology that the desire for happiness is the most fundamental human drive, but it is important to note that this desire generally operates within the bounds set by another drive just as deep and pervasive. This other drive is the need for security. However insistent the raw itch for pleasure and gain may be, it is usually held in check by a cautious concern for our personal safety.

Ordinarily, our benighted attempts to achieve security are governed by a myopic but imperious self-interest oriented around the standpoint of self. We assume that we possess a solid core of individual being, an inherently existent ego, and thus our varied plans and projects take shape as so many maneuvers to ward off threats to the self and promote its dominance in the overall scheme of things. The Buddha turns this whole point of view on its head by pointing out that anxiety is the dark twin of ego. He declares that all attempts to secure the interests of the ego necessarily arise out of clinging, and that the very act of clinging paves the way for our downfall when the object to which we hold perishes, as it must by its very nature.

The Buddha maintains that the way to true security lies precisely in the abolition of clinging.

The essential counsel that the Buddha gives us to secure our self-protection is to shun all evil, to practice the good, and to purify our minds. By the pursuit of non-violence, honesty, righteousness and truth we weave around ourselves an impenetrable net of virtue that ensures our well being even in the midst of violence and commotion.

(full essay here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_15.html)

Notice that the Buddha never said “There is no self”, or “The self does not exist”. Instead he maintained that building our universe around this individual self would lead to suffering. True security has to be based on something larger than one person’s idea of herself. Actions, relationships, all the ways in which we are connected with other beings in the world – these are the platform of our (shared) security. If we take refuge in the integrity of our words and actions, a perceived slight here or there won’t have the power to harm us.

It’s important to remember that life is not an all-or-nothing game. If we fail to live up to our highest potential in one moment, we can learn from that and move forward. If we enjoy the benefits of our kind and generous actions and words, we can learn from that, too. Not by clinging to past deeds, but by knowing with a growing confidence that this is how things work.

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To Live with Dignity

For Buddhism the innate dignity of human beings does not stem from our relationship to an all-mighty God or our endowment with an immortal soul. It stems, rather, from the exalted place of human life in the broad expanse of sentient existence. Far from reducing human beings to children of chance, the Buddha teaches that the human realm is a special realm standing squarely at the spiritual center of the cosmos. What makes human life so special is that human beings have a capacity for moral choice that is not shared by other types of beings. Though this capacity is inevitably subject to limiting conditions, we always possess, in the immediate present, a margin of inner freedom that allows us to change ourselves and thereby to change the world.

The notion of acquired dignity is closely connected with the idea of autonomy. Autonomy means self-control and self-mastery, freedom from the sway of passion and prejudice, the ability to actively determine oneself. To live with dignity means to be one’s own master: to conduct one’s affairs on the basis of one’s own free choices instead of being pushed around by forces beyond one’s control. The autonomous individual draws his or her strength from within, free from the dictates of craving and bias, guided by an inward perception of righteousness and truth.

– from “To Live With Dignity” by Bhikkhu Bodhi, originally published by BPS (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_38.html)

One thing that Bhikkhu Bodhi is pointing to in this essay is that there are both external and internal forces that can compromise our autonomy and our dignity. If we are very sensitive to the expectations of others (“obligers” in Gretchen Rubin’s lexicon), we may do things or respond in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily choose without perceived pressure from outside. If we are not aware of our own flaws, our unwholesome inclinations, we might give them free reign, thinking it can’t be helped, that it’s just the way we are. Both of these false imperatives can be recognized and counteracted, leading us to actions and words of greater autonomy and dignity.

If we choose the Buddha’s 8-fold path as our guide, we can cut through our confusion; we can use it to question, to investigate, and to come to a better understanding of our own motives and our perceptions of outside pressures. By using the 8-fold path as the engine of our reflections, we can protect ourselves from poor decision-making caused by our own passions and prejudices.

When we are tempted to say something harsh or unkind, we can ask ourselves, “Is this right speech? If I say what I’m planning to say, will benefit or harm be the result?” If we are filled with righteous indignation, we can investigate: “What view am I clinging to tightly enough to cause this suffering?”

In all of us humans there’s an underlying integrity which is the source of our dignity. If we use the Buddha’s 8-fold path, it can help us strengthen our integrity, one action at a time, one moment at a time.

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