I’ve come to the end of a six week course called “Buddhism and Modern Psychology”, and my mind has just exploded. Professor Robert Wright—pictured above in conversation with Theravada Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi—has brought together the ancient wisdom of Buddhism and the twenty-first century perspective of science in a way that has shone a clearer light on the human dilemma than any I have witnessed in more than a half-century of spiritual journey. Although the course is now coming to an end, you can still sign up for free at Coursera, watch the lectures and read the discussion forums.
There is one small point which I wish to argue with Professor Wright, but I hope that this will reveal what an extraordinary job he has done in clarifying the incomprehensible. The Buddhist teachings can be seen as a path leading to the ultimate prize of enlightenment. Robert Wright has with dignity and humility admitted that he is very far from enlightenment. Bhikkhu Bodhi laughed when Robert asked him if he was enlightened, and then answered, “Not by a long shot!”
The point I wish to argue is not so much a disagreement as a shift of emphasis. Several times during the course, Robert mentioned that the goal of enlightenment is far out of the reach of a vast majority of us. Bhikkhu Bodhi, who has spent a lifetime in a monastic setting and has translated thousands of pages of the Pali Canon, certainly didn’t contradict that assessment, and I would be the last to disagree. But while I can’t say that I am “enlightened”, I find myself in a pretty amazing place. I find that I am virtually incapable of holding, for more than a few seconds, negative emotions such as anger, hatred and jealousy, and have conquered the chronic depression that has plagued me most of my life. I find every bit of life so amazing that I cannot remember the meaning of the word “boring”. In every other being I see myself, and for this reason I have not exactly removed enmity from my life, it has simply vanished. And if you are familiar with the essential points of Buddhist doctrine, you’ll know that I (who doesn’t exist) haven’t done any of this. So I ask myself “How the hell did I end up here?!”
Robert Wright’s course has inspired me to take a closer look at what has brought me to this place, especially since I have never attended long retreats, don’t spend hours sitting on a cushion, and I can never remember all the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path. Although this could fill several books, here are a few principles which—as non-intuitive as some might be—I think are essential.
- First, whatever we might think of enlightenment, the goal is to end suffering, first in ourselves since that will at the least keep us from making so much trouble for others. And we must recognize that this must be done in an instant, not in the future, which I’ll explain later.
- Pain and suffering are not the same. We all know what pain is, but we usually fail to notice that our habitual reaction to pain is what creates suffering. By following the urge to get rid of the pain, we add to it, and it always amazes me that by bringing clear attention to pain, either physical or emotional, without judgment, it will often begin to evaporate.
- Everything of which the mind is conscious, is a construction of our own brain, and therefore in a sense an illusion. You can begin to understand this with a simple experiment. Take a piece of cardboard, punch a tiny hole in the center and with one eye closed pan the cardboard around the room and notice what you see through the hole. You’ll see a dot which is constantly changing in brightness and color. This is what a single photoreceptor in your retina is “seeing”. It takes a tremendous amount of processing and interpretation of this incomprehensible data streaming in from the over 120 million receptors in the eye for the brain to construct a mental model of our surroundings. All of our thoughts, fears, emotions etc. of which we are conscious—in short all of our experience—is composed of what our brain has constructed.
- The configuration of the brain that is constructing all of our experience has been conditioned by the imperatives of natural selection and by the myriad of influences from past experience and cultural demands. We have been programmed and are slaves to the program if we fail to understand it. As miraculous and essential for functioning and survival as this is, it can easily lead us down a path to delusion. Knowing this allows us to see experience with a certain skepticism and see through the tricks our brain is capable of playing on us.
- Attention is the necessary and sufficient skill that can bring a halt to our tendency to create suffering. This skill can be developed through a commitment to the practice of meditation, but unless we recognize that liberation can only happen in an instant of awareness, we will be forever running in a circle of postponement. If we are thinking about how to proceed, if we are lost in doctrine or theory, we will not be able to bring enough attention to experience to penetrate the mystery of our mind. This of course means that we are never finished. But there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that you’ll never be as good as you can possibly be. The good news is that you’ll never be as good as you can possibly be.
- A sense of humor is essential. We won’t get very far along the path if we take it so seriously that we can’t have some fun along the way. Ironically, I’ve found that the more I am able to laugh at my own foolishness, the more deeply I can feel the suffering of someone in pain.
For me, this is most dramatically seen in facing the problem of anger. If someone says something that angers me, my reactive conditioning kicks in and I’m headed down a road to suffering and harm. But in that instant I have a choice. We are usually unaware of this opportunity because in a few seconds we have gone too far down the road. But if I am quick enough, I can make a choice. I know that the road leads only to greater suffering, and I am willing to pay almost any price not to go there. The price I must pay is to drop all my agendas, all my expectations, all my desires except the aspiration to be free of suffering. If I have followed the reactive path very far before making this decision, I will be in pain and I have more work to do. If I’m willing to let it be as it is and bring attention to it, the reward will be so much greater than any price I have had to pay.
The last time I was actually angry, a number of years back, my wife said something that pissed me off, and I reacted by saying something nasty. I had been here often enough that I knew where this was going. I knew that everything I did in response would build more anger and resentment in both of us. So I stopped. I sat quietly and noticed how it felt in every part of my body. I noticed that there was tension in my shoulders. As soon as I noticed this they began to relax. I examined every muscle in my body where there was tension or discomfort. I watched the stories my mind was creating. How can I get her to see how much she’s hurting me? What really nasty and clever thing can I say that will prove that I’m right and she’s wrong. It took sitting with these really bad feelings for some twenty minutes before they began to let go of me, but in half an hour the anger had completely evaporated.
All of our reactivity won’t change overnight. There may be a hundred times that we find ourselves embroiled in anger, suddenly thinking, “Damn. I had a chance to end this and I didn’t take it.” But rather than beating ourselves up, we should rejoice that we noticed, for we have just taken a bold step toward liberation. And it only takes one moment to know that we are free and will never have to turn back–one moment when some negative emotion arises, and in a couple of seconds we have dropped it, we relax and are watching life around us with amusement, fascination, equanimity and compassion.
I think it is admirable for anyone to devote their lives to attaining complete liberation, full on enlightenment. But for the rest of us, once we have pointed our compass in that direction, perhaps we ought to put aside that lofty goal and bring our attention closer to home with the willingness to fully experience whatever arises moment by moment, without judgement, without trying to change it. We just might discover that it is the simplest and most transformative thing we’ve ever done.