Awareness and Happiness

We don’t pay enough attention to our lives.  Every passing moment is a potential moment of  intimate connection with our deepest selves, our loved ones, and the natural world. Every passing moment is a potential moment of wise and compassionate engagement with ourselves and others.  Every passing moment is a potential moment of insight into the question of what is the truest and most meaningful way for us to live our lives.

Instead, our lives pass us by.  We’re all too often disconnected from ourselves, our bodies, nature, and people around us. Our lives get caught up in the routine and humdrum.  Our minds run on old automatic programs — some written deep within our genes: our sense of ourselves as separate from others, our sense of our minds as separate from our bodies, our attraction to novelty, our pursuit of pleasure and flight from pain, our anger when frustrated, our fear of the unfamiliar — others learned in childhood: our respect for authority, our identification with a social class and ethnic group, our belief that personal worth comes from pleasing others or achieving outward success, our fear of being our true selves.

We create new automatic programs all the time.  Repeated practice allows tasks that initially require a great deal of attention to eventually run on pure habit.  Remember how difficult it was learning how to type?  At first, placing and moving our fingers was a slow, painstaking process.  Eventually our hands knew what to do without the mind’s interference.

William James called habit “the great flywheel of society.”  If we had to pay attention to everything we’d get precious little done.  Habit affords us economy of time and efficiency of action.  Habit also allows us to multitask: we can run well-learned behaviors in the background while devoting scarce attentional resources to more demanding tasks in the foreground.

Once behavior becomes habitual, however, it’s hard to analyze what’s gone wrong if the behavior proves problematic.  We know something’s gone amiss, but we can’t figure out what it is.  Solving the problem requires paying fresh attention to it: watching how a habit operates, what sustains it, and what it’s consequences are.

The Pleasure Principle

There are several key programs nature has written into our nervous systems which have a  profound and direct bearing on our ability to be happy.  Most notably, our nervous system seems to have been designed for pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain (what Sigmund Freud called the pleasure principle.)  At first glance this may not seem like much of a problem.  After all, we all want more pleasure and less pain!

There’s a serious downside, however.  There are a great many behaviors that lead to short-term pleasure, but long-term misery.  These include addictions like overeating, alcoholism, and compulsive sexual activity, achievement-undermining behaviors like  procrastination and carelessness, and relationship-destroying behaviors like selfishness and intimidation.  In fact, the list of behaviors that lead to quick satisfaction and long-term grief is practically endless.

Most of the “defense mechanisms” psychologists talk about are habits of mind that effectively  eliminate anxiety.  Psychologists talk about “denial” and “repression” which are mental processes that limit our awareness of thoughts and feelings that might disturb us.  The cigarette smoker who says cancer will never get him, the driver who won’t buckle his seat belt, the teenager who won’t wear a condom, and the alcoholic who thinks he can handle his liquor are all disregarding crucial information in order to avoid anxiety about doing what pleases them.  They’re also risking their own lives and happiness and the happiness of others around them.

Habits that bring immediate pleasure and eventual grief can only be changed by shining the light of awareness on them.  All too often, our attention is only focused on the pleasure such acts bring, and we disconnect from awareness of their harmfulness.  If each and every time we engage in these behaviors, however, we slow things down and consider the fruits of our actions, would we be able to keep the behavior going?  If we keep in mind what the smoke we’re inhaling is doing to our lungs, and remind ourselves what it’s like to have cancer with each and every puff of each cigarette — would we be able to continue smoking?

The Impermanence of Satisfaction

Our nervous systems are built so that we can’t stay happy for long.  Nature designed us that way for a reason: A permanently content squirrel wouldn’t gather nuts for the coming winter.  It wouldn’t nervously scan the environment for predators.  It wouldn’t live long enough to pass on its genes.  So it is with us.

Similarly, our nervous systems are built to pay less attention to sensations that repeat and fail to change  over time.  Psychologists call this habituation.  Sometimes habituation’s a blessing; it’s the reason why bad odors lose their potency over time.  Habituation makes sense in terms of biological survival.  We need to pay more attention to information that’s rapidly changing than to information that’s static.   It is more important to pay attention to a charging tiger than to the stationary tree that’s behind it.

Habituation comes with a cost, however.  The temporary, fleeting nature of pleasure means we’re restlessly driven to seek new pleasures which are equally fleeting in turn.  Even winning the lottery doesn’t lead to greater happiness over time — lottery winners are no happier a year after they win than they were the year before they won.

Another downside to habituation is that chronic problems never capture our attention the way emerging ones do.  We can see this at work in the way television handles news stories.  A fresh problem becomes an object of public concern, and television becomes consumed with covering it.  Three months later the problem hasn’t been solved, but the public is bored with it and television moves on to something new.  We mobilize national or world resources to solve a problem in Haiti or Somalia, then lose interest in what’s happening in those countries after the immediate sense of crisis is over.  Haiti is front-line news one day, but the grinding poverty that is everyday life in Haiti is never news. Even the very word news says volumes about the way we stay only fleetingly informed about the world.  All this is only natural.  We only have so much attention to spare.  We attend to the sensational, the dramatic, and the novel, and never get around to solving the basic problems which are the true ground of unhappiness.

The Reality Principle

Fortunately we’re not totally dependent on our programming.  We’re capable of learning from experience and modifying it.  We learn to bypass the easy pleasures that undermine long-term goals, and tolerate the short-term pain that helps us achieve them.  This ability to delay gratification and tolerate useful pain is part of what we mean when we talk about becoming an adult.  In Freud’s language, we learn to put the “pleasure principle” in service of the “reality principle.”  As children, if we’re lucky, our parents act as “mindfulness agents” warning us to pay attention to the long-term consequences of short-term pleasures.  We don’t appreciate our parents much for this as children, but if they haven’t done this for us we find ourselves in deep trouble as adults.  As adults we learn to become our own “mindfulness agents.”  We’re responsible to ourselves for becoming aware of how we derail our long-term happiness. This requires us to invest our lives with fresh curiosity and attention.  It requires us to look at ourselves in new ways, without the habitual blinders that prevent us from seeing ourselves as we really are.

The Big Picture

If there’s no enduring happiness in pursuing short-term pleasure, is long-term pleasure any better?  Isn’t it subject to the same rules of habituation, the same limitations of our nervous systems to stay permanently happy?    If the endless pursuit of pleasure seems meaningless, is there something else worth pursuing and basing one’s life on? Is there a state of being more worthy of our efforts? This is the question that religion and philosophy attempt to address.  If there are different answers proposed by various religions and philosophies, how can one go about determining what’s true?  What is the Good Life?  What is the meaningful life?

The answers to these questions can be found through learning to pay fresh attention to life.  As we observe ourselves more closely, we start to inquire into our relationship with the larger world of existence.  Who are we really? What should we be doing with our lives?  What is our place in the natural order of things?  We discover that we’ve all too easily accepted answers to these questions that have been handed down from family, religious authorities, and the Great and the Wise.  We become aware of how the dissociations that define us: mind vs. body, self vs. nature, me vs. you,  are arbitrary and porous.  They’re seen as constructions of the social mind that could have been drawn differently and elsewhere, not the contours of reality itself.  These dissociations gradually diminish in their persuasiveness as we develop our ability to see through them with greater clarity.  It’s as if, in allowing our attention to penetrate more deeply into the interstices of our daily life, we’re shining the light of awareness onto the problem of Being itself.  Every time we’ve freed an aspect of Being from the constraints of conventional wisdom, every time we’ve breathed awareness into the space and upon the ground in which we actually live, we experience a realm of existence which can only be referred to as the sacred and holy.  Sacredness doesn’t derive from any particular set of beliefs or dogmas.  It doesn’t exist as Idea.  We directly experience the quality of sacredness itself, the quiet that seems deeper than deep and purer than pure.  The experience speaks for itself without need of interpretation.  It’s there waiting to be attended to.  After the experience comes the search for words and labels, but the experience is prior to words and labels, and in the conceptual search, the experience itself is once again lost, tarnished, encrusted, constrained, and buried.  It waits to be freshly rediscovered in the next moment of awareness.


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Why Aren’t We Happy Yet?

So why aren’t we happy yet?  What’s the problem?

Well, as it turns out, there isn’t just one problem, but a whole bunch of them.  (Things are never that simple.  I’ve gone ahead and bundled them into seven categories. I’m a bit of a category nut):

  1. The Problem of Conflicting Desires
  2. The Problem of Illegitimate Desires
  3. The Problem of Enchantment: Translating Desires into Needs
  4. The Problem of Supply and Distribution
  5. The Problem of Impermanence
  6. The Problem of Other People’s Imperfections
  7. The Problem of Our Own Imperfection

Each of these problems needs a little bit of explanation and elaboration.

The Problem of Conflicting Desires

We sometimes have several desires at once which are incompatible with each other.  For example, we want to eat everything that appeals to us, but we also want to be thin.  Or we want to have lots of money, but we don’t want to work too hard.  Or we want to have a relationship with Sally, but we also want one with Joan.  Or we want to please our parents, but we also want to do things our own way.  We want to have our cake and eat it too. This is our unfortunate human condition.  The world seems to have been arranged so that we just can’t have everything we want because the things we want are contradictory and exclude each other.  In fact, it seems to be a general rule that whenever we chose something, we are not choosing something else.  Every time we make a choice we are closing off other options.  There is nothing we can do about this problem: this is something we just have to suck up.

The Problem of Illegitimate Desires

Sometimes we have a desire, but we’ve been told by our parents, partners, or teachers that we shouldn’t have it.  We’ve been taught that the desire is illegitimate.  When this happens, we may blame ourselves for having the desire, or we may pretend the desire doesn’t really exist.  For example, you may be told that you shouldn’t have certain sexual desires: you shouldn’t feel like masturbating, or having sex outside of marriage, or having sex with a member of the same gender or a different race.  Or you may have been told that you shouldn’t be selfish, or acquisitive, or independent, or aggressive.  Or that you shouldn’t be soft-hearted, trusting, or sentimental.  Or that you shouldn’t be curious, questioning, and innovative.

If one is going to think sanely about this issue, it is important to make a distinction between having desires and acting on them.  Desires just happen, and we don’t ask to have them.  We don’t ask, for example, to be homosexual or heterosexual, or have high or low sex drives.  We just have certain desires or we don’t.  We also can’t ask not to have them without ending up pretending and lying to ourselves.  We do have the ability, however, to decide whether to try to fulfill those desires or not.  A person might discover, for example, a desire for sex outside of his or her marriage and decide that it would be morally wrong to act on that desire.  The important thing here is not to blame oneself or someone else for having the desire in the first place. So much human misery has been caused by the self-blame and low self-esteem that comes from believing one is bad because one has illegitimate desires.  It is wiser to accept oneself fully in terms of recognizing one’s true desires; then one can control the satisfaction and frustration of those desires in accordance with the way one wants to live.

It’s a simple fact that we can better manage our desires when we see them and understand them correctly and without blame.  The alcoholic who denies he’s really an alcoholic doesn’t make the decision to avoid alcohol at all costs.  The alcoholic who is honest but not self-blaming can make wise choices and stay out of the bar.  The alcoholic, however, who recognizes the desire but labels himself or herself as “bad” for having it just has one more reason to go out and get drunk.

When we don’t properly appreciate and understand our own desires, we often end up making our lives and the lives of others around us miserable.  Think for a moment of a male homosexual who denies to himself that he is “gay,” and marries a woman just to prove to himself that he is “straight.”  You can predict the results a few years down the road: an unhappy husband, an unhappy wife, and in the wake of the probable divorce, unhappy children.  You see this same predicament in people who choose the wrong profession for themselves, or in couples who marry when they only think they are in love.  Socrates’ injunction to “Know Thyself” involves our ability to know our true desires.

The Problem of Enchantment: Translating Desires into Needs

One problem with desire is that we often magically over-evaluate the thing we desire.  On a ten-point Intensity of Desire Scale, we often assign the desired object a score of “11”.  When we are in love, the person we love has no flaws, and is more wonderful than any other person who ever lived.  We would give up everything to win their love in return; sometimes we do.  When there is stylish dress, or a new cutting-edge electronic device, or a classy automobile we just have to have, the item we want changes from an object to an obsession, and there is enormous energy that arises as part of the yearning and wishing.  Once we actually possess the loved one, or the dress, or the car, our evaluation of it begins to decline: our desiring loses some of its charge, excitement, and energy.  How often have you noticed that our anticipation of attending a social event, for example, is often more fun that the event itself?

This initial intense charge, this infatuation, makes for a certain kind of enchantment by things: the desired object has us in its power.  We are bewitched.  What ought be just a desire has become a need in our own mental calculus.  Once a desire has been turned into a need, it takes on a pre-eminent importance to us above what it should have, and this means that we will give more to obtain it than we ought to.  It also means that if our attempts to obtain it are frustrated, we become angrier and more frustrated and upset than we would otherwise be.  It can become something we would die for, or would kill for.

Learning to see desires as just desires and not as needs is an important part of making things right-sized in our lives.  We can see how irrational our teenage children are when they need a special brand of clothing, or need to attend a particular party.  From our special place of hard-earned maturity, we can see how childish they are.  What is harder to see is just how childish we are when we need that bigger house, or that boat, or that promotion, or that elective office, or that early retirement.  Or when we need to be thin, or to not look old, or to not become infirm.  Learning how to live with what is reasonably possible, and to accept what is inevitable is an important part of learning how to be happy.

The Problem of Supply and Distribution

Economics has been called “the dismal science” because one of its central axioms is that desire always outstrips the ability of the world to satisfy it.  There isn’t enough money, oil, gold, or diamonds to meet everyone’s wishes for them.  There aren’t enough supermodels and hunks to go around as spouses for everyone.  There aren’t enough brainy genes to make everyone a genius.  Scarcity often makes things more valuable: the more rare it is, the more people want it.  On the other hand, if something isn’t desirable, there often seems to be more than enough to go around: more than enough flu viruses, more than enough dust, more than enough mosquitoes.

To make things worse, when things are desirable, they aren’t distributed evenly.  The powerful and important people get more than their fair share of things, and the rest of us make do with less.  Or none.  That’s not just true in capitalist societies.  In feudal societies the nobility had it all and the peasants had next to nothing.  In communist countries, the commissars had their dachas (vacation homes) on the Black Sea and the special schools for their children, and the best of healthcare, and the masses shared the poverty of the collective farm. The old joke has it that under Capitalism man exploits man, while under Communism, it’s just the opposite.

While some societies share the wealth more fairly than others, Western Europe, for example, is more equitable in sharing its wealth than is the United States, no society has even remotely done away with inequality.  Some people are born into more advantaged families, genders, nations, or races, or they are bigger, faster, brighter, stronger, more beautiful, or more unscrupulous than others, and voila, there you have it: inequality.

As a result, you will never have everything you want, and there will always be someone who has something more than what you have. For some people this is an unmitigated  tragedy and a cause of unending bitterness, for others it is “just life.”  You get to choose which attitude you want to take towards it.  Guess which one makes you happier?

In saying this I am not arguing in favor of inequality, and I am not suggesting we should not make real efforts to try to make the world fairer.  I am just arguing for the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer that is recited in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: May you be granted the serenity to change the things you can, accept the things you can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference between them.

The Problem of Impermanence

If you succeed in getting the thing you desire, your next problem is that it won’t last.  Nothing lasts forever.  People grow old and sick and die.  They fall out of love and they move away.  You get that great new job, and the boss changes, or the company gets bought out or folds. Houses need painting and repair, car engines wear out and get thick with sludge.  Mountains erode, climates change, nations rise and fall. Objects decay, entropy intrudes, times change.  Eventually the sun will burn out and the universe will run down.  Trust me. The Buddha said that all “compound phenomena are subject to decay.”  By “compound phenomena,” he meant things that were made up of other things, namely, everything.  Heraclitus said “You can’t step in the same river twice.”

Not only is the world constantly changing, but our feelings about the world are constantly changing too.  There is a psychological law called habituation which basically says that the brain tires of responding to the same old same old.  The first bite of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk Ice Cream is sublime.  The 100th bite, not quite as delicious.  The first time you hear that new hit song, it’s delightful.  After a while you feel like you’ll scream if you hear it one  more time.

Not only is the world always changing, and our emotional response to it always changing, but the contents of our minds is always changing, too.  If you just sit and observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, you will see how they are all constantly changing.  We are continuously learning new things and forgetting old things (unless we have Alzheimer’s Disease, in which case we forget the new even faster than we forget the old).  We change our moods, our opinions, and our minds.

Our desires change as well.   The books and movies we love as teenagers are not the same books and movies we love in old age.  As a youngster I hated olives and anchovies, now I love them. The vocation you aspired to in grade school is not probably not the same vocation you are in, or want to be in, today.

While the law of impermanence says we can never be permanently happy because what we want changes and the things we acquire change, there is a bright side to it: it’s not all gloom and doom.  If there was no change, we would never grow wiser or smarter, we would never overcome bad habits, and we would not learn new skills and information.  We would never better our condition or invent or create something new.   Change allows for the good as well as the bad.  So let’s hear one cheer for the Law of Impermanence: Hooray.

The Problem of Other People’s Imperfections

Nobody’s perfect.  And when it comes to other people, nobody’s even close.  In fact, to tell the truth, most people are disappointing and annoying a reasonable percentage of the time.   Even, or maybe especially, the people that you love.   They have all these bad habits, and they do all these dumb things.  Part of the problem is genetic.  Half the population is below average.  And humans share over 99% of their DNA with chimpanzees, so other people really aren’t much smarter or better behaved than chimpanzees.  How could they be?  Their biggest problem is that they don’t always put our own interests first.  They often care more about themselves than they do about us. How selfish!  And they aren’t always sufficiently attentive and appreciative of us.  Can you imagine?  They don’t hang on our every word, they don’t think all of our ideas are great ideas, and they don’t always anticipate our every need and satisfy them.

Even the best of people have all these flaws.

The Problem of Our Own Imperfection

There’s no doubt about it: We’re not perfect either: We’re not powerful enough to control the world.  We’re not powerful enough to control our bodies and stop them from aging or becoming ill.  We’re not even powerful enough to control our own minds.  If you need proof of this, just try counting from one to ten without thinking about a white rabbit.  Or try to have no thoughts at all for the next ten seconds.

There are certain kinds of errors we’re prone to making just simply because we’re human beings.  As a species we tend to be irrational, impulsive, and overly focused on short-term gain.  Think of those as design flaws.

In addition, we have limited vision and tend to be short-sighted.  When chess masters are playing an opponent, they try to anticipate how their opponent will counter their next move, and what they will do in response, and how their opponent will respond to that.  But even the best chess masters can only see several moves ahead.  Our brains are only so big.  As a result, our actions often have unintended consequences which we failed to anticipate.

As a result of our limited vision, all of our solutions to problems seem to create new problems.  This is why there will never be a problem shortage.  When the automobile was invented it was seen as an ingenious and affordable method for getting rapidly from Point A to Point B.  No one back then guessed it would contribute to global warming, to air pollution, to dependency on the Middle East for oil, or to tens of thousands of deaths and brain injuries per year.  When Thalidomide was prescribed by European gynecologists for morning sickness in their patients, they didn’t anticipate it would lead to an epidemic of birth defects.  When air conditioners and cooling systems were invented to make the summer heat more tolerable, no one anticipated that they would become reservoirs for the microorganism that causes Legionnaire’s Disease.  When Paris took Helen to be his wife, he didn’t expect the Trojan War.

As much as we try to think ahead and come up with “environmental impact statements” or other guestimates of the future impact of our decisions, we’ll always be woefully wrong.  The variables that affect the future are so numerous, we can never fully take all of them into account.  We’re like people lost in the night-time fog with little flashlights.  We can shine the flashlight on the ground and see a few footsteps ahead, but not much further.

So there you have it.  The seven reasons why you aren’t permanently and deliriously happy yet.     I hope you’re satisfied.

I wish I could be satisfied with the list, but I’m not.  I must have left something out, given my own imperfection.  If you come up with any additional reasons, please post them here.

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Starting to Meditate

The best way to understand the mind is not by reading about it, but by observing it directly.  Doing so means making a space in one’s life to take the time for observation. Find a quiet place to sit, and allow yourself to become still.  Pay attention to the activity of your mind as you do so.  Just notice what happens.  The process of being still and noticing your own mind is called meditation.


Probably the first thing you will notice as you meditate is what a busy place the mind is.  Sensations, sounds, images, intentions, urges, emotions, memories, plans, reveries, and judgments, all flit in and out of awareness with surprising speed.  If the mind is observing itself rather than focused on problem solving, it might appear at first that there is no order in the jumble and chaos that presents itself.  The mind may also appear chaotic in that the intention to self-observe does not, in itself, seem very stable. One moment we are observing our minds, and the next moment we are off in a daydream, the intent to observe all but lost.  It can be a bit alarming to see how hard it is to keep the mind on track. Whatever our intentions as observers, the mind seems to have a mind of its own.

This is the very first lesson of observation: “we,” the observers, are not in control of our minds: the mind is completely untamed and follows its own rules independent of our wills. What is happening, however, is not really chaotic.  The mind is following rules.  One of those rules is that one event in the mind triggers a variety of associated processes.  Imagine for a moment that we are sitting quietly and notice the sound of bird song.  This event then triggers a variety of contingent processes:

1) Labeling – Categorizing the sound: Is it a robin?  Is it a cardinal?

2) Judgment – Is the sound pleasant or unpleasant?

3) Memory – Remembering facts about birds, images of birds, past memories of having heard birds, etc.

4) Intention – Deciding to look for the bird; Vowing to read up more on birds in the future, etc.

This process of one sensation setting off a volley of subsequent processes (which in turn sets off a new set of subsequent processes) is called mental proliferation.  Proliferation is the normal state of the human mind. Another thing you might notice about the mind is that it is very hard to focus on observing anything in itself without its immediately being labeled, judged, compared to, or acted on in some way.  Try for a few moments to just notice things without labeling, judging, comparing, or otherwise thinking about them.  Go ahead, try it right now.


Some people mistakenly think that meditation is about only noticing without labeling, judgment, memory, intention, etc.  As you can probably already tell, if this is what meditation were about, no one would be able to meditate. Instead, meditation is really about observing the noticing, and subsequent labeling, judgment, memory, and intentions as it unfolds in real time.  Meditation is about being observant of the entire process, without the need to improve upon it or change it.  Or, if there is a need to improve upon it and change it, watching that too.

The Pleasure Principle

One of the other things we might notice as we observe our own experience is that the mind is dominated by what Freud called the Pleasure Principle. The pleasure principle means that the mind tries to maximize pleasure and minimize unpleasantness.  If we are sitting and observing the mind, and if what is happening in the mind is pleasant, we act to prolong that pleasantness.  If there is bird song, we listen to it and try to stay focused on it.  How lovely!  How peaceful!  How pleasant!  This meditation thing is great!  We could just sit here and meditate all day!  On the other hand, if what is occurring is unpleasant, we want to get away from it.  If the sound we are hearing is not a bird singing, but a jackhammer hammering away outside our window, we immediately want to get up and stop meditating, or we want to open the window and shout at the idiot outside to stop at once.  All our peace and tranquility is gone in an instant.

When you sit and try meditating, notice when you decide to stop observing and either daydream, or get up and do something else.  Usually our observation, and our will to observe, stops at some moment when there is some unpleasant feeling.  If could be that loud jackhammer or that pesky mosquito, but it could just as easily be something inside of ourselves: a bad memory, a state of boredom, our legs falling asleep. Our tendency to become attached to pleasant events and to push away unpleasant ones becomes very apparent as we observe ourselves.  Ancient Buddhist meditators noticed Freud’s Pleasure Principle 2,500 years ago, and called it “dependent origination”, the chain of how one thing leads to another  They noticed the way sensations led to judgments about pleasantness, and how these judgments lead to the mind’s clinging and pushing away.  They also thought that the clinging and pushing away was responsible for much of life’s misery.  It leads to misery because humans lack the capacity to control life and keep pleasant sensations going indefinitely.  Humans also lack the capacity to keep unpleasant events at bay.

If you doubt that this is true, think about your own experience.  Imagine eating a spoonful of your favorite ice cream.  Mmmm.  It’s delicious.  You want to taste that flavor forever.  It is just so pleasurable.   Then imagine trying to prolong that wonderful enjoyment.  Keep on eating more and more ice cream.  Imagine the 10th spoonful.  The 100th spoonful.  The 1000th spoonful.  What is happening to the pleasure?  You are running into the psychological law of habituation: any repeated stimulus loses its interest upon constant repetition.

Even if habituation did not occur, getting and keeping all the ice cream we needed to keep us happy could be a problem.  For one thing, all that ice cream would melt if we didn’t have a big enough freezer for it.  We will need to work a great many hours to get the money to buy a freezer big enough.  And then we will need to protect our ice cream from others who might want to steal some of it from us.  We will need to get an alarm system, and maybe some firearms to protect our ice cream stash.  And then, despite our best intentions, the ice cream eventually goes bad in our freezer, anyway.  We come up against the inevitability of change.

Everything we desire to possess eventually changes and we cannot hold on to it.  If you think the ice cream example is trivial, try another example.  Think about relationships.  All relationships eventually end.  People change and stray, or grow ill and die.  All job situations eventually change: the company you work for gets acquired by another company or goes under, you get a new boss or an annoying coworker, you get promoted to your level of incompetence according to the Peter Principle, or you become bored or disabled. Nothing stays the same for long.  Eventually even climates change, mountains get worn down, continents drift, and the sun goes out.

The need to keep pleasure going and run from moments of unpleasantness is also the basis for addiction: the relentless chasing of pleasure to run away from emptiness, loneliness, ennui, and self-loathing.  We can broaden the concept of addiction so that it applies not just to substances such as alcohol, heroin, nicotine, and cocaine which cause physiological dependence, but also to any relentlessly pursued psychological escape, including gambling, sexual addiction, shop-a-holism, sensation-seeking, and so on.  These activities promise escape from pain, but usually end up creating more pain, and create shipwrecks of our lives and our relationships.

Lastly, we might note that avoiding unpleasantness also prevents emotional growth and development.  If everything was always handed to us from birth and we were always protected by beneficent parents, we would remain psychological infants and never grow up.  Unpleasantness starts from the very moment of our births when we have to start breathing on our own.  All the growth we have shown since then has had a connection to our ability to deal with adversity and handle obstacles as they arise. It is through dealing with adversity rather than running from it that we learn to be assertive, and that we develop genuine self-esteem and social worth.

When one looks at all of these factors: The inevitability of habituation, the consequences of addiction, and the dependency of character on adversity, it’s easy to see why the Buddhist meditators thought that pursuing pleasure and running from unpleasantness was the cause of much of the misery in life.  They recommended a kind of stoicism: enjoying pleasure without becoming overly attached, enduring and dealing with pain that must be accepted.    Freud called this kind of stoicism the Reality Principle: learning to live with reality the way it is and not the way we want it to be.  We can observe our capacity to rise above the pleasure principle and live with reality in our own meditation.  As we sit in meditation, we can watch our attachments and aversions to our own experience as they arise, and just observe them without yielding to clinging or pushing away.  There is a great inner calm that can develop as we work at this.  In your own meditation, give it a try and see if you can experience that inner calm, which is, in its own way, a source of gratification as deep and pleasurable as any in life.

I have already introduced two important rules that govern the mind: proliferation and the pleasure principle.  It is time we examined one of the consequences of the way mental proliferation and the pleasure principle interact.  As was pointed out above, even a brief moment of birdsong catapults us into categorization, judgment, memory, and intention.  What started out as an event occurring in the world has ended up as a messy porridge of mental processes.  Imagine how it is, then, with events that are seemingly more consequential than birdsong: moments, for example, of betrayal, humiliation, failure, pain, or loss. At such times, our problem-solving mind creates such a proliferation of thoughts, that this web of thinking gets mistaken for reality itself, and the real moment that initially triggered the proliferation is buried, like an original oil painting that has been painted over again and again by an artist intent upon revision.

Laurie was abandoned by her biological parents at one year of age, and was placed in an orphanage. She was adopted into her current family when she was two.  At age 12, when she was beginning to enter into adolescence, her adaptive father became more distant, perhaps because he was uncomfortable with her developing as a woman, perhaps because she was becoming more independent and headstrong. In any case, she  experienced his distancing as another rejection.  At the age of 16 she met her biological mother for the first time since early childhood.  Her biological mother promised to be a part of her life, but then disappeared from her life again.  Laurie’s first adolescent relationship with a boy ended when she discovered that he was cheating on her.   Now, whenever Laurie begins to feel close to a boy, she pulls back from the relationship, wanting to protect herself from being abandoned again.  When she pulls back, the boy she is getting close to pulls away in reaction to her withdrawal, reinforcing her perception that she will always be abandoned.  Laurie has just begun a new relationship.  She went to a party with her new boyfriend and thought he was paying too much attention to another girl at the party, and not enough to her.

Laurie is unable to stay with the actual experience in the moment: the actual experience is one of seeing the boy talking with another girl and seeming to enjoy the conversation, combined with a desperately  anxious  feeling inside of herself.  But these simple observations are complicated by a flood of reactive thoughts and consequent secondary emotions and action urges.  Laurie is having thoughts, for example, like “He is abandoning me just like everyone else,” “I am doomed to always be abandoned,” and “There is something wrong with me that makes me unlovable.”  The anxiety is then mixed with feelings of anger at the boy (“all men are untrustworthy pigs”) , and feelings of self-pity for herself (“I’ll always be alone”).  Lastly, she experiences herself becoming cold towards the boy and ignoring him, and resolving to leave the party early without him.  She then reacts to her own behavior and thinks to herself  “I am so angry and cold, no wonder no one loves me.”  Her belief that she is doomed is thereby reinforced.

If Laurie is unable to observe and understand the process that is going on in her mind, she can take all these thoughts to be the truth, instead of seeing them for what they are, conditioned reactive thoughts.  She will then act as if these thoughts are true and make it more likely she will be abandoned in the future.  If, on the other hand, Laurie has learned not to act on her thoughts and impulses, but to observe and understand the process of her mind, she can see that the thoughts are just thoughts, and refocus on what has actually happened.  What has happened is only her boyfriend’s momentary inattention and her anxiety.  Then, she can find a gentle way to communicate to her boyfriend that she would like some more of his attention, and that she doesn’t like it when he flirts with other women.

The example of Laurie helps us to see how the mind can create its own alternative reality, spinning a narrative web from our past experiences, expectations, longings, and fears, and then mistaking the created story for truth.  Psychoanalysts call this tendency to see the present moment of a relationship in terms of thoughts, feelings, and intentions generated by the past, “transference.”  It is not pathology, but the normal way the human mind works.  The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote that “the universe is made of stories, not atoms.”  Almost invariably our present moments are colored by these stories we ceaselessly tell ourselves.

Behavioral Psychologist Steven Hayes calls this being able to see thoughts as mere thoughts rather than as truth decontextualization. When we are able to decontextualize, we are able to see the quote marks around thoughts and not mistake them for reality.  There is a world of difference, after all, between thinking one is a jerk, and realizing that one is now having the thought “I am a jerk.”  In the first instance one experiences feelings of self-hatred and hopelessness.  In the second instance one’s reactive emotions are minimized and one just recognizes a familiar conditioned thought which has no substantiative reality.  Buddhists talk about thoughts as being “empty” and having no “intrinsic nature.”  When one can see thoughts as mere thoughts, they are like soap bubbles that burst and vanish when gently touched.  Tibetans say that such thoughts are “self-liberating,” and are like a thief that has entered a house in which there is nothing to steal.  They are insubstantial; there is no longer any energy behind them; they have lost their toxicity; they cause no harm.

What Should We Do With This Moment?

If one has lost one’s way in uncertainty, if one is unsure how to act, the most important thing one can do is to sit still and watch what one’s mind is doing.  We can become aware of the raw feel of this moment, and of our reactivity to it with all of our labeling, judgment, intentions, and urges.  We become aware of the stories we are telling ourselves.  We resolve to be open to the full moment regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. If we can make a big enough space inside of ourselves to let this all happen, and if we ourselves can find the quiet and stillness that lies behind and around this storm of activity, the what that we should do often clarifies itself.  The mind is like a muddy glass of water that gradually becomes clear as one lets it stand, as all the silt slowly settles.  When this happens, we act from a place of great clarity and inner calm, rather than being pushed and pulled by habitual and reactive thought patterns. While there is no guarantee than such an action will bring about result we desire, we will have done the very best we know how to do at the time.  That is all we can ever do: just the best we can do in this moment.  If we can truly live this way in this moment, moment after moment, then our life takes care of itself.  We are fully here, fully responsible, fully ourselves.  Rather than turning to authority, we are the authors of our lives: our lives are self-authorized.  But this self which authorizes is no controlling ego, but an open field of knowing, a flowing changing process.  In this field, reason, emotion, and intuition meet, and head and heart are joined. In this field, our knowledge of the past, and our hopes for the future, encounter the present.

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