February 14, 2007

Buddha Break 2007.02.14

Here's an e-mail exchange I recently had with a friend who is discovering the merits of Buddhism, but is worried about its 'religious' aspects and the potential extremes of unattachment (my friend's questions are indented):

> Not counting the obvious practices such as meditation, can you think
> of some examples in which as a Buddhist you've reacted to a real-
> world situation differently than you might have before? Even as one
> who isn't quite ready to consider himself a Buddhist, as a result of
> the reading I've done I find myself being consciously aware of my
> surroundings and my own behavior, and when something begins to upset
> me I remind myself that it is only a feeling that will pass, and so
> it does. Does Buddhism, for you, result in a continual checking of
> yourself, or has it become internalized and automatic?

To me it's an issue of maintaining mindfulness. I'm constantly doing mindfulness checks, which I think is par for the course. Over time it's getting easier and easier for me to remain rooted in the moment and be aware -- with the ultimate goal of having it come automatically and effortlessly. I try to be as self-reflexive as possible. Whenever I have an emotional swing or an emotion spike I try to take a psychological step back and trace the steps that led to such feelings. This doesn't mean you have to fight the feelings; it's more a matter of understanding how those feelings and thoughts were contingent upon one another.

I also work to 'read' those around me to get a sense of their state of mind -- this also gets easier over time because you can see patterns in people that mirror your own. They may not be aware of their state to the degree that you are. This helps in interactions because knowing their state of mind will help in your constructive interactions with them. And of course, this can also help increase your sense of empathy with them.

Some examples of mindfulness include my ongoing interactions with my kids and my work day. With my kids, I strive to remain calm, respectful and helpful. As for my day job, much of my work is menial and repetitive. This is where the Zen Buddhists have it figured out. Each task, no matter how often it is repeated, can be scaled down and analyzed such that it can still be improved upon, or at the very least maintained. If you become bored of a task, then it's important to be mindful of the boredom and work on your psychological self-conditioning to recognize it as an emotional state and a craving of sorts. It may not help with the boredom, but it's a start.

> As a secular Buddhist, who presumably isn't constantly consumed with
> the minutia of doctrine, do you feel like you should be strictly
> following the traditional "rules?" What about drinking? What about
> sex? Is the letter of the law important, or the spirit? I know the
> Buddha says that the dharma is testable through experience, but how
> much "Buddhism" can a Buddhist ignore before he's really just a guy
> who thinks self-reflection and meditation is cool?

I struggle with this. My own personal goal is to do the best I can under the circumstances. First and foremost, a Buddhist's primary motivation is to mete as little harm as possible to other sentient agents (the Dalai Lama, btw, eats meat because he likes it so much; we're not after moral perfection, here -- it's more of a spectrum of behaviour that one is comfortable with). The second priority is to not harm yourself. You're also a sentient agent who deserves to be as free from suffering just like the next guy. Ask yourself: am I abusing or neglecting myself? In what way am I responsible for my unhappiness?

As for striking a balance, I try to do 'relative happiness' checks from time to time. If I feel that I'm slipping down a slope I try to analyze my habits to see if I'm letting a potentially bad habit or craving-of-the-week dictate my negative moods.

One thing I learned early on (and Gautama talked about this) is to avoid a purely aesetic life. Avoidance of all things that give pleasure and the seeking of existential minimalism and even suffering is ridiculous and futile. Take eating, for example. Enjoy eating, but be mentally prepared to give up your favourite food at any given time. You can still honour your preferences and lead a good life filled with experiential goodness.

When Asian Buddhists visit North America, for example, they prefer noodles to pizza when given the option. If they have no choice but to choose pizza, they still eat the pizza without letting it affect their mood. That, imo, is the key to Buddhism. If, on the other hand, you have a habit that you're not prepared to discard if you had to, then you have an issue that's worth exploring.

> One thing I'm really curious about is how one knows when a desire is
> the selfish craving of tanha, and not simply something one wants
> because it is pleasing. Is it simply a matter of enjoying things for
> their own sakes, without expectations? Is my desire to get a new
> iPod merely something that I will enjoy listening to music on, or is
> it something that I subconsciously feel will help make me whole? Is
> it as simple as meditation or just being aware and reflective about
> why I want things? Or are all desires tanha, and some are merely
> more destructive than others? I guess that's really more a technical
> question than a general one, but it's one I'm not sure about
> nonetheless.

I think some of the answers to this question are related to the previous one. I like what you said, "Is it simply a matter of enjoying things for their own sakes, without expectations?" That's a good way of looking at it. The key is to recognize the severity with which you may be attached to something.

I also like that you said, "or is it something that I subconsciously feel will help make me whole." That's a very mindful observation! Experiment! Go ahead and buy that iPod and self-reflect on how your feelings and perspectives change over the course of the transaction.

Here's what I suspect will happen (because I go through this all the time myself): I crave some new technological gadget and look forward to using it and the new outlets it will create for me (ie artistic expression, novel information, superior features, etc). I buy the item and I am immediately filled with buyer's remorse. Once I'm over that I enjoy the product, but never to the degree that I fantasized I would. Eventually the novelty wears off and my craving re-directs to another technological gadget. This is most definitely a cycle of despair. I'm still stuck in this rut, but I've made the first step of being mindful about it and I suspect that I will soon learn that I don't need to buy every little toy.

I'm also mindful about my motivations for wanting technology (or anything for that matter). Consider the impact of our evolutionary psychology: we are hardwired to crave material possessions, we have a desire to increase social status, we love tools, and so on. I may have also purchased the product due to social pressure, the need to conform, and extremely effective marketing (NLP, etc.). Again, my actions may not change, but my *awareness* of what causes my actions are raised to the surface. Eventually I hope to be able to transcend external and internal influences and achieve better control of not just my actions but my psychological reactions as well.

Lastly, Buddhism is soley about psychology and managing your state of mind. It's not about buying the iPod. It's about the quality of your subjective experience leading to the decision and your subsequent mental states.

> I need to read more. On that note, do you have any recommendations
> as far as books or websites that I could learn from?

Batchelor's Alone With Others is awesome. Life changing.

And while not exclusively Buddhist, these articles also had a life
changing effect on me and has helped tremendously in my meditative and
mindfulness practices:

Read the first series at the very least:


Paul said...

Like you, I'm not a Buddhist but have been influenced by it precisely because of its immensely practical nature. Christianity tells you to be good; Buddhism gives some thoughts and practices for how to go about it.

New Alexandria said...

Though not addressing the exact point of some of the questions posted; I feel that those similarly moved by them would probably find Jeannine Davies' work to be of interest. Davies' contemporary work handles tranditional topics in a really functional manner.

Anonymous said...

hey zachary, that sounds like a shameless plug. any vested interest?