anatta (non-self)

The importance of emulation in compassion

concentric circles of bright colors

In some versions of the  lovingkindness (metta bhavana) meditation practice we start by calling to mind a benefactor — someone who has been kind to us. The significance of this is that we’re remembering what kindness is like, connecting experientially with it so that we remember what it’s like to be looked at with kind eyes, to hear kind words in a kind tone of voice, to see kind body-language, and to be on the receiving end of kind actions. This makes kindness real for us, so that we can become kinder ourselves.

The reason I think this is important is that in cultivating kindness and compassion we’re all limited, and we’re all in need of outside help in order to become less limited.

Also see:

We all have genetic and cultural conditioning that makes it hard for us to cultivate compassion. We might aspire to be kind and compassionate, and although sometimes we will succeed, we will often struggle. Sometimes we fail to notice suffering or respond compassionately to it. Sometimes we behave in ways that make people suffer. We have blind spots that prevent us from even recognizing that we are acting unkindly or harshly.

We often just don’t know how to act differently. I was brought up in a household where I didn’t witness many examples of kindness and compassion, but instead saw a lot of criticism and harshness, and where suffering was often dismissed. Those were behavioral patterns that were impressed into the substrate of my developing brain, just as they’d been impressed into my parents’ brains, and into their parents’. This kind of conditioning causes the very blind spots I was talking about.

People who had the blessings of a genuinely empathetic and compassionate upbringing have very different patterns imprinted in their neural pathways. They know what compassion looks like, sounds like, and feels like. They know how to behave when face with someone’s suffering.

Ultimately, we’re never going to figure out compassion all by ourselves. We can make a certain amount of progress on our own, but our most powerful breakthroughs and insights are likely to come from learning from other people. That learning might come from a book, course, or video, or perhaps more likely just from seeing examples of compassionate behavior in action. Witnessing compassion can be an “aha!” moment. We realize, “Oh, wow! It’s possible to act like that!” And in that way we begin to transcend the limitations of our conditioning.

So you might want to remember instances of others behaving compassionately toward you. This doesn’t have to be just in meditation. You can remember instances of forgiveness and understanding, even of someone just listening patiently to you. Repeatedly calling those memories to mind, you imprint those patterns on our neural pathways. You build the realization, Yes, I can act like that. You make it more likely that you’ll act compassionately in the future.

Compassion spreads from mind to mind through a slow virality: sometimes from parent to child, teacher to student, or friend to friend. This is why the world has, on the whole has been becoming a better place over the last few millennia. (Admittedly a pattern of progress with some ups and downs.) Compassion has been imprinting itself upon our minds.

It’s good if we remember that we are part of this process. We can be the examples of compassion that influence others, and make them realize, “Wow! It’s possible for someone to behave like that! Maybe I can do that too!”

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Buddhism, free will, and non-self

Woman standing in front of two doors, one red, one blue, implying a choice.

The concept of “free will” doesn’t sit very easily with Buddhism. As far as I’m aware, it’s considered an important idea because God rewards and punishes us depending on whether we choose good or evil, and in such a belief system it’s necessary that we be considered capable of choosing freely.

Actually, the concept of free will doesn’t sit very well with some aspects of Christianity. Think about it: if God is omniscient, he therefore knows every choice you will make in your life, and so every choice you make is predetermined, and so you have no free will. An omniscient God therefore rewards or punishes you based on something you have no choice about.

There’s no creator God in Buddhism, but because our culture has been steeped in Christianity for centuries, the question of whether there is free will often comes up, presenting itself as a pressing dilemma that we need to urgently solve.

First there’s the question of whether our will is actually free. And second, there’s the question of how there can be free will if there is no self to make choices.

The Buddha Often Taught In Terms of Contrasting Options

Buddhist practice rests on the notion that we can make choices. This seems to be in the same ball park as the concept of free will. The very first chapter of the Dhammapada is titled “The Pairs,” and it presents us with alternative choices. The first two verses illustrate this very clearly:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

The point here is that there are choices, and our choices matter. The Buddha doesn’t explicitly say here that we have a choice, or that there’s such a thing as free will, but he is implying that there are choices to be made.

The Buddha Explained In Detail How Choice Happens

In other teachings, for example in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta,  the Buddha expands on how choice happens:

Mendicants, before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I thought: ‘Why don’t I meditate by continually dividing my thoughts into two classes?’ So I assigned sensual, malicious, and cruel thoughts to one class. And I assigned thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness to the second class.

Then, as I meditated—diligent, keen, and resolute—a sensual thought arose. I understood: ‘This sensual thought has arisen in me. It leads to hurting myself, hurting others, and hurting both. It blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment.’ When I reflected that it leads to hurting myself, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting others, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting both, it went away. When I reflected that it blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment, it went away. So I gave up, got rid of, and eliminated any sensual thoughts that arose.

The Buddha is clearly describing a process of making choices here. He makes a decision to categorize his thoughts, apparently on some kind of hunch that had arisen. As he notices the untoward effects of “thinking imbued with sensuality,” etc., he abandons those forms of thought.

Choice Is Karma

This choice arises from cetana, which is “will” or “intention.” And this cetana, the Buddha said, is “karma.”

Intention, I tell you, is kamma.

Karma is choice. Specifically, it’s the choice that shapes our character, for better or worse.

He Pointed Out That Our Choices Are Limited

But he also saw a limit to our ability to make choices in any given situation. For example, he pointed out:

Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

We’ll come back to “consciousness is not self.”

In the meantime, let’s just acknowledge that you can’t just decide what the nature of your consciousness will be. You can’t decide to be happy, for example. Well, you can, but it probably won’t change anything! You don’t have control over whether your body ages. You can’t make pain or illness go away by force of will.

If we have free will (the ability to make choices) then clearly there are limits in the choices it can make.

Choices Are Limited By the Preceding Conditions

Change comes about, the Buddha teaches, based upon the nature of the preceding conditions. For example, You can decide to grow crops, but you can’t make the seeds grow by force of will.

You can however plant seeds and water them, providing the requisite conditions:

There is the case where a farming householder quickly gets his field well-plowed and well-harrowed. Having quickly gotten his field well-plowed and well-harrowed, he quickly plants the seed. Having quickly planted the seed, he quickly lets in the water and then lets it out.

These are the three urgent duties of a farming householder. Now, that farming householder does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my crops spring up today, may the grains appear tomorrow, and may they ripen the next day.’ But when the time has come, the farming householder’s crops spring up, the grains appear, and they ripen.

This Principle Is Called Conditionality (Paṭicca Samuppāda)

In making choices, we’re working within a system of conditionality (paṭicca samuppāda). Certain things lead to certain other things in a relatively predictable way. We make choices only within the realm of what is possible.

What’s true for the cultivation of crops is true for for the cultivation of the mind as well:

In the same way, there are these three urgent duties of a monk. Which three? The undertaking of heightened virtue, the undertaking of heightened mind, the undertaking of heightened discernment. These are the three urgent duties of a monk. Now, that monk does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my mind be released from fermentations through lack of clinging today or tomorrow or the next day.’ But when the time has come, his mind is released from fermentations through lack of clinging.

Thus, monks, you should train yourselves: ‘Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened virtue. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened mind. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened discernment.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

If you want insight (heightened discernment) to arise, you have first to cultivate meditative states (heightened mind). If you want to cultivate meditative states, you have to practice ethics (heightened virtue). These are the laws of “mental agriculture” within which we operate. And you can’t just decide “I’m going to be free from clinging.” You can only choose from what’s possible, and that’s not possible.

How Does Choice Happen Within Conditionality?

The mind has the ability to make predictions about the future. This is crucial in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta passage. The Buddha recalls that certain mental states have led to suffering for self and others. He notices that certain other mental states have led to freedom from suffering for self and others. This has been true in the past.

And that becomes the basis of predictions for the future: this mental state that has arisen will cause suffering. And that prediction becomes the basis of choice: “Well, then, since I don’t want to suffer or to make others suffer, I should drop this way of thinking and choose another way of thinking. Why don’t I choose to think in a way that has been shown, through experience, to lessen my own and others’ suffering?”

See also:

To think this way is to be aware of the principles of conditionality.

Our choices aren’t entirely free. We could decide not to do something that we know will make us suffer (e.g. binge eat) and yet feel compelled to do it. The decision to act in a way we don’t want forces itself upon us. We find that we don’t have the resources to resist it. We know that the action will cause suffering, but the conditions aren’t right for us to make any other choice in that moment.

What Is Freedom?

If you’re talking about free will, you’re talking about freedom. Free will means we’re free to do whatever we want. It’s the freedom to. I’ve shown that the Buddha pointed out that we can’t simply do whatever we want. That’s just not how the world works. It’s not how conditionality works. There are always limits to what we can choose. Will is never entirely free, because it can only interact with existing conditions, and those conditions limit what can happen next.

The Buddha’s conception of freedom was not freedom to, but freedom from. The Buddha’s concern was always about how we free ourselves from suffering. If someone had confronted him with the notion of freedom being the freedom to he’d probably have reminded this person that the purpose of spiritual practice is to become free from suffering.

His teaching was always about how to become free from suffering, and the method for doing this was to work within the bounds of what conditionality allows, making choices that lead to greater happiness — or, if you like, freedom from suffering. We become free of suffering by becoming free of the causes of suffering, which are selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. And we become free of those things by noticing them arising in the mind, and choosing not to exercise them, but to exercise their opposites. That’s what he’s saying in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta.

The Buddha doesn’t try to prove that choice happens, but simply takes it as a given. It’s our experience that choosing takes place. We can observe choices happening.

Wiggle Room Within Conditionality

I’ve said that we could decide not to do something that we know will cause us suffering (e.g. binge eating) and yet feel compelled to do it. Conversely, we could decide to do something wholesome (like meditate) and find that we can’t bring ourselves to do it for some reason.

At times we don’t have very much freedom, because the forces of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion are strong. But there’s always at least some wiggle room. The thought “This isn’t a good thing to do; maybe I shouldn’t do it” might be weak today, but it can get stronger over time, and eventually it might have enough strength to change how you act. So keep feeding that thought. It’s a wise thought.

There does always seem to be some wiggle-room for choice arising within the chain of conditions. Even if it doesn’t change the choices we make now, it might make a difference in the future. Who we are changes as we lessen the influence of selfish desire, ill will, and delusion, and as their opposites become stronger. In making wise choices, we’re becoming freer from suffering. That’s the important thing.

There Is No Self To Have Free Will

But what of the notion of anatta, or not-self? This was already referred to in one of the quotes above, and I promised I’d come back to it.

Consciousness (and the other skandhas — parts of our being) are “not oneself” (anatta) because one can’t control them, any more than we can choose to make crops suddenly appear or make an illness vanish, or decide to be happy for the rest of our lives.

Anatta, or not-self, simply means that the kind of self we think we have don’t actually exist. We think we have a self that is permanent, separate, unified, and capable of making choices consciously. We don’t have a self that works in that way. What we are is ever-changing, entangled with the world around us, and fragmented — and the choices that take place within whatever-we-are arise outside of consciousness. They arise before your conscious awareness registers them. Conscious awareness, in fact, doesn’t even make choices, as I discuss in Understanding Non-Self: The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist.

In the Dvedhavitakka quote above, the Buddha says, The thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’

“The thought occurred to me” indicates that this thought wasn’t the result of conscious decision-making. It was a hunch. It just arose. This is in fact true of all thoughts. Thoughts just appear to conscious awareness. Conscious awareness doesn’t create them. The fact that it seems that it does is a delusion. Thoughts occur (the Pāli is literally something like “it was to me thus“). You can watch this happening, and realize, as Thoreau did, that nothing is as unfamiliar and startling to us as our own thoughts. If we observe thoughts appearing, we can indeed be surprised by them; we have no idea what our thoughts will be until they appear. We have little or no awareness of how they are made.

Who we are — our “self” — is not unified. One part of the brain gives rise to a thought. As that thought arises, it percolates to the various parts of our consciousness and has an effect. You (your brain, your mind) is not a unified entity, but a community. The community evolves and changes as wiser parts of us recognize that this emotion and the actions arising from it will lead to suffering, while that emotion and the actions arising from it will free us from suffering. It takes time, because this is a long, slow process of education.

Each of us is an evolving community, not a unity. It’s not the “Self” that educates the community. It’s just the wiser parts of the community (those that can draw the dots between present actions and future outcomes) that do the educating.

Ignore Free Will

In short, free will is an important concept  in Christianity because if our basic model is that God rewards or punishes us for our actions, we have to be free to choose. (Although free will also seems to be incompatible with the concept of an omniscient deity.)

But the concept of free will doesn’t fit with the observable facts of the world. Choices aren’t free. We’re not free to do whatever we want, because what happens next is constrained by past conditions. Being able to be free to do what we want is not relevant to the project of freeing ourselves from suffering.

There is no need for the concept of free will in Buddhism. It’s not relevant. It’s not even a real phenomenon, being based on a false view of choice (prior conditions mean we can’t always choose to do the right thing). Because it’s an illusory concept, we don’t need to reconcile Buddhism with it. In fact we should ignore the concept of free will except to critique it.

Instead we should focus on what’s relevant from the point of view of becoming free from Suffering. Choosing happens. By choosing wisely, the parts of us that have a longer-term perspective on what’s good for our well-being can make us happier — and create the conditions for greater freedom arising. The most important kind of freedom is freedom from suffering, not the freedom to do whatever we want (which isn’t possible anyway).

We need to keep our attention on our ability to choose, to choose wisely, and to observe that choice is simply happening, so that we can lose the false view that we have a self that chooses.

Forget “free will.” It’s irrelevant because it’s an illusion. It’s not necessary.

We don’t have free will, but we have all we need in order to become free from suffering. And that’s the crucial thing.

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“Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness” — Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh, who is also known as Abba Isaac and as Saint Isaac the Syrian, was an important figure in the 7th century Christian church. He is most remembered for his writings on asceticism.

One thing he wrote was,

Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes to him the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.

These words are a powerful reminder of the importance of humility.

Humility is where we’re not afraid to admit our weaknesses to ourselves or to others. Humility involves self-awareness, because we need to know what our weaknesses are before we can admit to them. Humility requires honesty, in the form of a willingness to be open about who we are. And it requires trust: knowing that it’s okay to reveal our weaknesses to ourselves and to others.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us compensate for them

If we understand our weaknesses we are able to compensate for them. Here’s a minor example. Let’s say I’m aware that I have a weakness for a particular kind of snack (that would be potato chips). I can avoid walking down the supermarket aisle in which they’re kept.  I can ask my partner not to buy them for me. Knowing my weakness helps me to avoid its pitfalls.

Or let’s say I know I tend to be unkind when replying to someone who’s criticized me. I can be mindful that it’s wise to wait until I’m in a calm, clear, and kind state of mind before replying.

A weakness understood is a weakness we can work around.

You might notice that I talk about strategies for overcoming weaknesses. That’s very deliberate, because I find that the concept of will-power is overrated. I’ve written about this elsewhere, for example with regard to social media addiction. Rather than simply try really, really hard not to get sucked into social media, I found it much easier to create barriers between me and the object of my craving.

For example I could:

  • Not keep my phone by my bedside so that I didn’t pick it up first thing in the morning.
  • Have my phone switched off overnight so that I was more conscious about turning it on.
  • Turn off notifications so that I’m less tempted to open an app.
  • Not have social media apps on my phone at all, so that I had to access these services through a browser.
  • Block social media sites in my phone’s browser, so that I could only access them on my computer.

Those kinds of strategies helped me break my addictions to Facebook and Twitter (neither of which I use any more). This successful strategy was not based on willpower. It was based instead in an awareness of my weaknesses combined with a strategic approach to overcoming them.

Expressing our vulnerability leads to intimacy

Being aware of our own flaws helps us to develop more trust and intimacy in our closest relationships.  A few years ago I realized that some traumatic early childhood incidents had left me with an over-sensitivity to any hint that I didn’t matter to other people. For example, if I greeted my partner when I came home, and she didn’t reply (usually she was absorbed in something) I’d get hurt and irritated. The same would happen if I’d cooked a meal for us and she didn’t comment on whether she liked it or not. And since she spent a lot of time living on her own, she habitually turns lights off when she leaves a room, even if I’m still in there. I can get very reactive when I’m suddenly plunged into darkness.

Also see:

Realizing that my reactivity went back to early childhood incidents helped me to be more understanding of it. It allowed me to practice self-empathy. I could see that in being reactive it wasn’t that I was a “bad person.” It wasn’t that I was “failing” at being a mindful and kind partner, or at being a Buddhist. It’s just that my mind was wired at an early age to be scared of being ignored by those closest to me.

Knowing my weaknesses makes it easier for me to forgive myself. It’s also easier for my partner to be forgiving of me, because I can tell her, “I”m sorry I snapped at you; my sensitivity about abandonment got triggered when you switched the light out without checking whether that’s what I wanted.” She can understand that.

Revealing our weaknesses to each other helps us to be more understanding and empathetic to each other. We no longer see each other as “bad partners” but as flawed human beings who want to be kind to each other in the face of our internal obstacles. Revealing our flaws to each other, we learn to love each other’s flawed nature.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us to be tolerant

Weaknesses are part of the human condition. We all have them. Weaknesses are not “sins” that condemn us. Recognizing this, we free ourselves from the burden of pretending to be something we are not. We no longer feel the need to defend our bad behaviors. We can just explain them.

Recognizing our own weakness makes it easier for us to be tolerant of others’ weaknesses as well. We no longer try to hold them to an impossible standard. We understand, in Voltaire’s words, that “We are all formed of frailty and error.” And therefore, as he enjoins us (continuing his train of thought) “let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” We can recognize that we are all doing a difficult thing in living this human life. Knowing this, we can support each other rather than try to make life even harder.

When other people mess up, as they will, we can recognize that they’re not fundamentally different from us. We all have brains that misunderstand things. We all have conditioning that leads us to over-react to certain events. We all contain selfish craving, ill will, and confusion. These are what we’re working with, and our tools for working with them are very imperfect, so that changing ourselves isn’t always easy.

Accepting our weaknesses helps us to see things as they really are

One of the central teachings of Buddhism is the concept of anatta, or not-self. Sometimes people translate this as “no self,” but the Buddha never said that there was no self. He even said that holding the view that there was no self was a source of suffering. When he talked about anatta, he pointed to many aspects of ourselves — our perceived physicality, our feelings, our thoughts, our emotional habits, and even our consciousness — and says we should regard these as “Not mine; not me; not my self.” What he encouraged us to do was to stop trying to define who we are.

Many of us tend to assume that our faults and weaknesses define us. In many people’s way of thinking, having a flaw or weakness — some habit that causes suffering to oneself or others — means that there’s something wrong with us. They think that they have a self that’s flawed: that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. This is shame, in the sense that psychologists use the term — meaning that we believe we are unworthy because of something we’ve done, of because of some trait we possess. We don’t just see the trait as being unhelpful or harmful — we see ourselves as being fundamentally bad because we contain it.

This belief that our flaws and weaknesses define who we are can lead to us trying to conceal what we’re really like.  We become dishonest, trying to hide parts of ourselves from others, and even from ourselves. When our faults do slip out into the public eye we try to rationalize them or explain them away, perhaps by blaming others (“It was you that made me angry”).

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta — not-self — suggests that there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul within us. Rather, what we perceive as the self is an ever-changing collection of physical and mental elements. This means that who we are is not fixed, but is indefinable. It is something that is different in each moment. We can never define ourselves. We can’t define ourselves by our weaknesses; they are not intrinsically who we are. We can’t define ourselves in terms of anything.

Accepting our weaknesses is part of the process of opening up to the reality that we don’t have an unchanging “self” with fixed characteristics.

Accepting weaknesses doesn’t mean being passive

Accepting our weaknesses means just what I’ve said: that we see them as facts to be taken into consideration, and as things we need to work with.

As I’ve explained, we can work with them by:

  • Observing our patterns of reactivity, and gently letting go of them.
  • Being conscious of weaknesses and learning how to compensate for them.
  • Being honest about them.
  • Relating to them with more compassion and understanding, so that we don’t torture ourselves.
  • Using self-awareness to help us understand how they create suffering in our lives.

At the same time as we’re doing all these things, we can be cultivating skillful qualities of wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.

We’ll never get rid of our flaws entirely. Life etches them deeply into the structure of our brains, and I consider the notion of even the “perfect Buddha” being as being a myth. (He was only perfect insofar as he was completely free of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. He wasn’t omniscient and he sometimes made mistakes.) But we can’t get rid of our weaknesses entirely.

And we don’t have to. Accepting our weaknesses, confessing and explaining them to others, forgiving ourselves for having them, getting to the point where we can stop them from causing major suffering for ourselves and others, and above all continuing to develop skillful qualities alongside them; that’s enough. That’s enough for us to live lives that are meaningful, joyful, and beneficial for the world at large, and for those who we’re closest to.

But the first step is knowing our weaknesses. As Isaac of Nineveh points out, this  knowledge becomes “the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.”

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Why you don’t have free will (and why that doesn’t matter)

image of robot, lacking free will

Free will is “the unimpeded capacity to choose between different possible courses of action.” We tend to believe that everyone has free will all the time, except under certain exceptional conditions, such as being hypnotized, or having a mental illness. I’m going to argue, however, that we don’t have free will, and that this doesn’t matter, because free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Free will is an important concept to us. Moral philosophers, religious teachers, and politicians have pointed to it as essential for personal morality as well as the flourishing of civilization. For example, Kant said “a free will and a will under moral laws is one and the same” and that if “freedom of the will is presupposed, morality together with its principle follows from it.” And Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, that American values are “rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”

The opposite of free will is determinism, which means that we’re wholly conditioned and aren’t responsible for our actions, even if we think we are. Determinism is a bit of a scary concept.

See also:

We believe that if we don’t have free will, life is deterministic. And if that’s the case, we’re less than fully human. If life is deterministic we’re not able to take responsibility for our lives, but are living in a purely conditioned way, like robots.

Problems with the concept of free will

The problem is that the concept of free will doesn’t seem to match up with how things actually are. For example, the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet did an experiment a long time ago. He asked people to perform a certain action, like pressing a button, at random times of their own choosing. The important thing was that they were to do this action as soon as they thought of it.

Libet used EEG to monitor subjects’ brains as they did this experiment and found that there was a burst of activity initiating the pressing of the button. This took place something like three tenths of a second before the participants had their first awareness of any conscious will to act.

So that’s a challenge for the idea of free will, because free will is the experience of choosing. But what Libet saw was that something that was not experienced consciously was pushing people to make a choice. It’s a bit like asking someone to jump into a swimming pool at a random time, but behind them some hidden person is actually pushing them in. What seems to happen is that just after the person has been pushed, they think, “OK, I’ve just decided to jump.”

As observers to this event, we can see that the person who thinks they decided to jump didn’t actually jump. They were pushed. Which means that they only thought they decided to leap. Which means that they only thought they had free will.

Another more recent experiment, using more sophisticated MRI equipment, asked people to perform an action with either their right or left hand. In this case it was possible to see activity taking place a full five to six seconds before the action was taken. This activity allowed the scientists to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which decision would be taken. So that’s even more challenging.

You might want to imagine the decision-making process as being like a whole line of hidden people behind the person by the pool. There’s a whole chain of shoves, with someone at the back of the line creating a domino effect, until eventually the person standing at the edge falls into the pool, saying, “OK, I just decided to jump in!”

This doesn’t leave much room for the conventional understanding of free will, which involves conscious choice. And since free will is seen as crucial to morality, this is very jarring.

Why the free will concept is so cherished

I gather that the concept of free will arose as part of Christian thinking. In that model, God put us on earth, and will ultimately judge us based on what we do here. For example we’ll be judged  based on whether we accept or reject the existence of God, and on whether we follow his will.

Imagine a God demanding that we make certain decisions and punishing us (for eternity) for failing to do so. And imagine that he’d created us without free will. Such a model would be cruel and arbitrary.

Anyone believing that God wants us to make choices pretty much has to believe in free will.

Free will is not a Buddhist concept

Now, Buddhism doesn’t talk about free will.

So what does Buddhism talk about? Well, Buddhism’s certainly not deterministic. The essence of Buddhist practice is that we are able to make choices. For example, the very first chapter of the Dhammapada, a very influential Buddhist text, is called the twin verses, or “The Pairs,” because most of the verses are, as you’d expect, in pairs. Each pair presents a choice: Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy. Buddhism’s entire ethical system revolves around making choices between what is unskillful (what causes suffering), and what is skillful (what brings freedom from suffering).

Aren’t the ability to choose and free will the same thing? Well, no. The freedom to chose is not the same as “free will.”

Buddhism talks about conditionality. Everything arises in dependence upon something else. What arises is dependent on what existed just before. Choices arise dependent on what existed at the time of choosing. And so our choosing is never unconstrained. If “will” exists, it can never be entirely free.

The Buddha pointed out that it doesn’t work to say, “Let my consciousness be thus” and expect that to happen. You can certainly have that thought — for example, “I choose to be happy right now, and to stay that way for the rest of my life” — but it won’t work. Being happy forever is not an option available to you, because your mind is conditioned, and the conditions affecting your happiness can never be entirely under your control.

You might be able to make choices that affect your well-being in a positive way, but you’re always choosing from a limited menu. You can’t meaningfully decide to be happy, but you can make choices that nudge your mind in the direction of happiness. You can choose to do things that leave you feeling less unhappy, or maybe even just a little happier. You might, for example, choose to drop a hateful thought, or choose to relax your body, or you might choose to cultivate a loving thought. These things all make a difference. But the menu might not, at any given time, even include the option, “be happy.”

This clearly isn’t teaching determinism. It’s saying that although we can choose, we can only choose from a limited menu. Free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Having chosen, we change the conditions that are present for the next choices we make. That’s important, as we’ll see in a moment.

We have a limited capacity to choose

Often, it’s not just that we don’t have many options to choose from, but that sometimes it’s hard even to make a choice. We might not recognize that we’re able to drop one thought, to relax the body, or to cultivate another thought. At certain times we might lack mindfulness and not even realize that options are available. At those times we really are like automata.

To make a choice requires mindfulness. Choosing requires that we stand back from our own mind and see the choices available to us.

Mindfulness might allow us to recognize, for example, that we’re acting out of anger, and to see that the possibility of being kind or patient is also open to us. And if we see that those options exist, and that they have different outcomes — one that brings more conflict and misery, and another that brings  more peace and happiness — maybe we can make that choice.

But sometimes we’re not mindful. Our conditioning can be so strong, and our emotions so powerful, that we aren’t able to stand back. We’re just swept along by a tide of emotion. The conditions that allow us to choose just aren’t there.

Wiggle room

When we are mindful, it’s a very precious thing. It’s then that we have choice. We can choose not to do things that will make us and others unhappy in the long-term, and we can choose to do things that are for the long-term happiness and well-being of ourselves and others.

If we keep making these kinds of choices, we change the pathways in our brains, which creates long-term changes in how we act. We become kinder and less reactive, for example. This spiritual work is the real meaning of the word “karma,” which in fact simply means “work” or “action.” Karma is action that changes who we are, for better or for worse.

Mindfulness gives us some wiggle-room amongst all the constraints of conditioning that hem us in and restrict our freedom. And by exercising mindfulness and reducing our reactivity we’re loosening those constraints. We’re using our wiggle-room to create more wiggle-room.

Choosing is never conscious

Libet showed that we only think we make conscious choices. Choices are made, or they begin to be made, up to five or six seconds before we are consciously aware of them.

There’s a part of our mind that, when decisions (say, to jump in the pool) erupt into conscious awareness, immediately says, “I decided to do that.” I call this part of the mind “the plagiarist” because it’s trying to take the credit for things it didn’t do. The plagiarist’s voice is what we take to be the voice of the self. We’ve been hearing that voice our whole lives, and we automatically believe it. This is the reason we believe that decisions that are made unconsciously are actually conscious decisions. And this is why we believe we have a self that is consciously making choices.

That decisions happen unconsciously is not a problem for Buddhism. In fact it’s something that Buddhism is happy to accept. Indeed, tecognizing that the plagiarist is deluded, and that there is no “self” making decisions is a key insight in Buddhist practice.

As long as choice happens, it doesn’t matter that decisions start unconsciously, long before they erupt into conscious awareness. As I’ve said, that’s how all decisions happen.

And it doesn’t matter that our decision-making is conditioned and not entirely free. That’s just how things are. Everything is conditioned.

“The Pairs”

The important thing is that the decisions that are made take into account more and more our long-term happiness and well-being. That is, it’s important that wise decisions happen — decisions that widen the degree of wiggle-room we have for making further wise decisions.

So to come back to very ordinary experiences — we keep catching ourselves (as long as mindfulness is present) reacting with states such as anger and anxiety. We keep recognizing that those ways of being create pain. We keep letting go of angry and anxious ways of thinking and behaving, and instead seek love and calmness. And we keep recognizing that the result of doing this is that we become happier.

Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy.

And in seeing the two sets of consequences available to us — painful or pleasant — we give mindfulness an incentive to make an appearance.

Keep doing this over and over again, and we become more free, and happier.

But what’s happening isn’t the result of decisions being consciously made. Our belief that decisions are consciously made is a delusion. And what’s happening is not “a self” taking action. Not only is there no free will, but there’s no self to have free will.

Instead choices are making themselves. And if this happens with the awareness, “Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy,” then we find that, more and more, skillful actions result.

The plagiarist is very convincing, though. It’s not easy to see through its lies. And again, that doesn’t matter. At first all we want to happen is that we make choices that liberate. Let go of anger, and cultivate love, and you’ll be happier and freer to make further skillful choices in the future. If the plagiarist keeps saying, “I did that,” then that’s a separate problem we can tackle later. (In fact, right now that probably doesn’t even seem like a problem.)

For now, just keep valuing mindfulness and the freedom to choose that it affords us.

Wildmind is an ad-free, community-supported meditation initiative, supported by sponsors. If you find this website helpful, you’ll love the access that Wildmind’s sponsors get to the meditation courses and other resources that I make available to them. Click here to learn more.

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Peace is right here, right now

Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

For the past month I’ve been recording a series of daily guided meditations, taking as my basis the teachings in a Buddhist discourse called the Honeyball Sutta. This teaching (also sometimes called the “Honeycake Sutta” outlines a feedback loop whereby we end up causing ourselves suffering.

It describes how the basic situation is that consciousness, through sense organs, perceives objects (which can be internal, like thoughts, or external, like the words you’re reading now). This is called “contact.” The word “contact” contains the assumption that there is a self “contacting” a world that is separate from it. The Buddha is not saying this is how things actually are — just that that’s how we assume things are.

Within this field of contact we then have feeling responses to certain perceptions. The sutta doesn’t spell this out, but when the mind detects something as a potential threat it generates unpleasant sensations (feelings) in the body. When it detects a potential benefit it generates pleasant feelings. When something appears to have no bearing on our wellbeing no feeling (a “neutral feeling”) is produced.

What we have pleasant or unpleasant feelings about, we turn our attention to.

What we turn our attention to, we think about.

What we think about we (sometimes) obsess about.

What we obsess about assails us (i.e. causes us suffering) and reinforces our sense of having (or being) a separate self.

So we have a vicious circle, starting with the assumption of a separate self, and reinforcing that sense of separateness. Assuming we are separate, and feeling assailed, we continue to search among those things we have pleasant and unpleasant feelings about, trying to find peace by obsessing about them. This goes on and on and on.

A friend of mine recently gave a talk about this sutta, and he did the usual thing of talking about how mindfulness helps us to damp down the reactivity of this vicious cycle. If we find ourselves thinking obsessively then we can let go of them. With practice we can find ourselves experiencing our feelings and not have that turn into “storytelling” at all. This is of course perfectly valid as an explanation—but it’s also incomplete, because the discourse goes much further than this.

The sutta points out that were there is “no eye (or other sense organs), nothing seen (or perceived through the other senses) and no consciousness, then there is no feeling, no turning of our attention, no thinking, no obsessing, no being assailed, and no construction of a sense of self.

Now this might sound very odd, and might come off as nihilistic. What does it mean that there’s no eye (etc), nothing sensed, and no consciousness? Is it pointing to some state of blankness? To non-existence?

No, it’s simply talking, in very stripped-down language, about how we can drop the notions of a consciousness that is “me, mine, or myself” and a world out there that is “not me, not mine, not myself.” The alternative to this is just being. We just drop the whole process of reactivity all at once: not just letting go of our reactive thoughts, but coming to rest in an awareness of “self-and-world” without conceptualizing in terms of there being a self and a world. (We don’t even conceptualize that self and world are one, because that’s still a conceptualization in terms of self and world.)

Of course this isn’t something we can do in a “one and done” fashion. It’s something we need to do repeatedly, so that as we practice “just being” this starts to become the way we operate. But it is something you can do right now. It’s probably best to stop reading these words for a while and then spend a few minutes doing the following:

  • Just settle into an awareness of “self-and-world” (not taking those terms too literally).
  • Be aware of perceptions of sight and sound, perceptions arising in the body, and so on.
  • Be aware of any thinking that’s arising.
  • If there are any thoughts or impulses that have the character of trying to grasp or push away any aspect of your experience, let them go.
  • Notice how you are happier when you’re just resting with your experience, rather than trying to resist or grasp.
  • More thinking (resisting, grasping) will arise. Over and over again, let go of it.

Now that isn’t difficult. Sure, lots of thinking probably came up. And maybe you saw that as a threat to your wellbeing, and if felt unpleasant, and you had the desire to push that away, to make it stop. And that was you back into reactivity again. But you can notice that, and let it go. It’s natural that resistance and craving arise. You’ve spent a lifetime practicing those!

But for moments, perhaps quite a few moments, there is no conception of our having (or being) a self that perceives a separate world through our sense organs. Consciousness is not perceived as self, and that which is perceived by consciousness is not perceived as other. The whole self/other thing is simply set aside. And we don’t see our feelings as being threats to our wellbeing; instead they just are, and there is simply an awareness of them. And so (in those moments of pure being) the mind doesn’t obsess, and we’re not assailed, and we’re at peace.

This is something, as I’ve said, that we can practice. Now sometimes when people hear that word “practice” they think “Oh, that means there are lots and lots of things I have to do and then I can experience a sense of peace and calm. But practice doesn’t just mean “doing preparation” (like practicing scales on a piano so that you can play Bach). It also has to mean “getting better by actually doing something.” Letting go of your sense of having or being a separate self is something that you can do right now. The peace, contentment, and wellbeing that come from letting go is something that you can experience right now.

Peace is available right here, right now. Don’t try to grasp it. Don’t resist anything you think might be keeping it from you. Just be peace.

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From the burden of illusion to the joy of freedom

Photo by Josh Boot @joshboot, Unsplash, photo-1482164565953-04b62dcac1cd

I’m going to say something about the arising of insight that I’ve never heard any teacher say before, yet which I think is crucially important if you’re at all interested in where Buddhist meditation can take you.

But first I’ll have to offer you just a little background.

Samatha and Vipassana

Traditionally, Buddhist meditation has been seen in terms of two different approaches: tranquility (samatha) and insight (vipassana).

Tranquility involves calming the mind, steadying the mind, and cultivating peace and joy. The experience that arises is called jhana, or absorption. The vast majority of references to meditation in the Buddhist scriptures are about this approach to meditation. The Buddha in fact described jhana as “the path to Awakening.”

Insight involves looking closely at our experience in order, ultimately, to see that we have no substantial, permanent self.

See also:

The Traditional View

In the early scriptures, which are the closest thing we have to what the Buddha actually taught, tranquility and insight are never described as being two different types of meditation. In fact there’s little or no emphasis on distinguishing them. At the most, they’re two synergistic approaches to meditation. They are meant to be developed together. They complement and support each other.

The relationship between them is usually said to be that we need to learn to steady the mind through developing tranquility so that it can then closely observe the nature of our experience through insight practice. An analogy would be that the light from an ordinary flashlight can’t cut steel. There’s enough power there but it’s not focused enough; the light waves are scattered and out of phase with each other, so that they cancel each other out. But turn the light into a laser — that is, take the same amount of light, line up all the waves so that they’re in phase and pointing in the same direction — and it now can penetrate metal. Tranquility, or concentration, is said to steady and focus in the mind in a similar way, so that it can cut through delusion.

This is the explanation that I’d like to challenge. I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s just missing something crucial.

Jhana is Insubstantial

What’s the missing element? It’s that tranquility is itself a way of completely changing the way we relate to our being. Absorption is in a sense a form of insight practice.

Here’s how.

In developing tranquility we’re learning to experience jhana (absorption). We learn to calm the mind so that we are no longer caught up in stories and are free to pay close attention to the body, its feelings, and the qualities of our emotional experience.

And what do we find?

We find that we experience the body less and less as a solid object. In fact we find no solidity. Instead we experience the body in terms of energy: a pleasurable tingling aliveness. Even what you would expect to be the most substantial physical experiences, like the contact the knees make with the floor, dissolve into twinkling pinpoints of sensation, constantly changing, vanishing as soon as they arise.

As we go deeper into absorption we “tune out” the body and become more fascinated by joy. Virtually everything else vanishes. In ordinary life we might be able to describe where joy is in elation to the body — it’s often centered on the heart, for example — but when joy becomes our whole experience we can’t even do that. Joy becomes everything. Joy is of course a very intangible quality, but it’s also changing moment by moment by moment. So our whole experience becomes one of constant change.

As we practice absorption our whole experience moves from the very ordinary sense we have of the body being a solid object, to experiencing ourselves as nothing an ever-changing, evanescent, flickering, constellation of physical and emotional sensation.

From Samatha to Insight

And then the question comes up: Where in this is there, or could there be, a stable, permanent self? Of course, such a thing is impossible. And at some point — BOOM! — our belief in such a self vanishes.

The normal sense we have of having a solid body is revealed to be a mental construction — part of our delusion of a solid self.

So this, I believe, is the main way that concentration and absorption aid the arising of insight. Yes, it’s got a little to do with us developing our ability to focus. But that’s only a small part of the story. The main benefit of absorption is that it dissolves away the solid self we assumed we always had, and reveals nothing but glittering points of sensation suspended in space.

In this disappearance we don’t actually lose anything except a burdensome illusion. And we’re left with a joyful sense of freedom.

One of the things I do is to guide people, step-by-step, into the experience of jhana or absorption. Jhana is not some mystical state that can only be experienced by elite meditators. Once you know how, jhana can arise quite naturally and easily. It’s just a question of knowing the steps. And even before jhana has fully arisen, we get a strong sense that our experience is becoming insubstantial. This dissolving of our normal sense of solidity is a major support for the practice of insight.

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The secret to self-discipline is having empathy for your future self

Photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash

In general, we human beings have trouble doing things that are good for our long-term wellbeing, but which may be challenging in the short-term.

Meditating or exercising regularly are good examples of habits where self-discipline is required. It can be stressful to fit a regular meditation practice or exercise routine into our already very busy lives. It can be difficult to sit when we’re feeling restless, and exercise tends to cause discomfort. Sure, in the long term, these things are highly beneficial to us and make us healthier and happier. But the long-term isn’t here, now. The short-term is. The future seems a long way off, and we can have difficulty in taking it seriously.

We can try and power through — forcing ourselves to do things that are hard now but bring long-term benefits, but it can be hard to sustain that kind of effort. In fact there’s often a backlash. We diet — but then we binge. We train hard — but then we veg out.

See also:

But I’ve found an incredibly simple — and self-compassionate — way to overcome short-term resistance and to commit to your long-term wellbeing. In other words I’ve found that self-discipline can arise from self-compassion. In fact, self-compassion makes self-discipline easier. I’d like to explain how that works.

Here’s the simple hack: have your present self treat your future self with compassion. Treat your future self as a friend, and be kind to them.

So here are some examples:

  • It’s late, and I’m about to head to bed when I realize that there are still dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. Normally I might just say “Screw it” and leave them until the morning. But then I think of how Morning Bodhi will feel about waking up to a dirty kitchen. He’s going to have an unpleasant sinking feeling. I think about how Morning Bodhi will feel about waking up to a clean kitchen. I realize he’ll be happy, and also grateful to Evening Bodhi. So I wash the dishes. I feel good knowing I’ve helped Morning Bodhi.
  • I want to go out for a run, but I’m kind of tired and it’s drizzling. Again, my first response is, “Ah, screw it.” But then I think once more about how Post-Run Bodhi will feel. From previous experience I guess he’ll be tired immediately afterward but will also have a post-run high and will feel a sense of accomplishment. Well, I want that for Post-Run Bodhi, so I put on my running gear and head out the door. And it turns out that Post-Run Bodhi does feel pretty happy. He even says thanks to Pre-Run Bodhi.
  • It’s one of those months where I’m trying to be careful with my money, but a friend has been raving about a new book and I’ve just looked for it online. I really want to read this book and I’ve been a bit stressed, so it would be a nice treat. I can get a reward just by clicking that “buy” button. But then I think about Future Bodhi. How will he feel as the end of the month approaches and his bank balance is running low? Will he be happy that Past Bodhi bought the book, or will he wish that past Bodhi had passed up on it? Probably the latter. He’ll almost certainly feel much happier having saved the money.

Letting yourself off the hook and giving up easily involve short-term thinking: this feels unpleasant now, so I’ll stop doing it. Self-compassion, on the other hard, is about what will benefit you in the long term: this feels unpleasant now, but how will I feel later?

This way of establishing an empathetic and compassionate relationship with your future self makes it easier to have self-discipline. It takes most of the pain out of persuading ourselves to do what’s for our long term benefit. Having empathy for our future selves stops self-discipline being self-punishment and turns it into self-care.

There’s less likely to be a backlash because you’re not forcing yourself to do anything; instead you’re persuading yourself in a rational and kind way. Thinking about the pleasant feelings you future self will have as a result of your present actions brings a sense of joy into the present moment. Having gratitude in the future for your past self’s actions is also a source of happiness. All this is much more pleasant than trying to “power through.” And a self-compassionate approach helps you to feel better about yourself, because you see yourself not as an enemy or as an obstacle to your own happiness but as a friend and as someone who helps yourself to live happily.

In short, when you have empathy for your future self it’s much easier to avoid impulsive and self-defeating behavior and to act in ways that promote your long-term wellbeing.

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Can Buddhist practice make you more of a dick?

A quick thought experiment for you. You can take a pill to extend your own life by six months. Alternatively you can give the pill to a stranger who is similar to you and add five years to their life.

Which would you choose in this hypothetical test of generosity?

This question was posed to a number of groups, including Tibetan Buddhist monks, non-religious Americans, American Christians, ordinary Buddhists in Bhutan, and Hindus in India.

You’d think that becoming a Buddhist monk would make people particularly compassionate and generous, but it turned out that this wasn’t the case, and that the monastic Buddhists were less willing than any of the other groups to give the pill to a stranger.

I’m stunned. The Tibetan monastics were more likely than any of the others involved in the study to embrace the idea that the self is not fixed. The study was in fact intended to find out whether embracing this Buddhist teaching would affect the fear of death. It seems it did, but in the wrong direction, making monastics more attached to living and more afraid to dying, to the point where they would choose to live at someone else’s expense.

I’m a bit disturbed by this, although it was pointed out that these were novice monks and not people who’d been meditating for years. But this point remains that these monks were less ethical than average Buddhists with far less practice under their belts.

It makes me wonder about who is attracted to monasticism in the first place. Could it be that it attracts people who are more self-centered than average? Or does being a monk make you more selfish, perhaps because of the status involved?

In a different part of the Buddhist world, a western monk, Sravasti Dhammika, pointed out that the “excessive reverence surrounding monks” in the Theravadin world tended to make many of them “complacent and proud.” Monks in Burma have been complicit in genocide against the Rohingya people, and monks in Sri Lanka have advocated violence against the Hindu Tamil population. Things can get ugly.

Anyway, I do find this study fascinating and rather disturbing. One of my social media friends said that it shows that becoming a monk doesn’t automatically make you a better person, but the problem is that it appears that in some respects it might make you less ethical!

As for myself, I think of what it would be like to live for six months knowing that I had deprived someone of five years of life. I’d rather not have that experience. You’re welcome to my pill!

But also, there are definitely times that my practice has made me more selfish and uncaring. Sometimes the notion of having a “higher” calling can lead you to neglect important relationships, and the idea of “non-attachment” can also become an excuse for unkindness.

The main lesson I take from this study is the reminder to keep checking that I’m being kind.


PS. I wrote an email to one of the leaders of the study, suggesting another possible interpretation of the results. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Dr. Garfield.

As a Buddhist I’m very open to the possibility that at times Buddhist practice may make us more selfish — I think many of us have misused teachings on “non-attachment” in ways that have hurt others — but I have a sincere question about the “Death and the Self” study.

I gather that the monks were novices, and my question is, given that novices may have recently (how recently in this case I don’t know) left home and entered a community of which they are the lowliest members, might your findings actually be measuring the effect of what may have been a deeply unsettling change in their social connections? I can imagine that such a change might provoke an anxiety that might overwhelm impulses to generosity.

I’m assuming that the other groups were not selected on the basis of having recently gone through such a profound dislocation in their lives.

Of course I may be misinterpreting the term “novice.” Perhaps these monks have been living in a monastic context for years. Anyway, I thought I should ask the question.

Thanks for your time.

Sincerely yours,
Bodhipaksa

 


And here’s the reply I received:

Dear Bodhipaksa,

Our group included novices and fully ordained monks with a range of years in robes. And we didn’t see any effect f length of time in robes or age. The interesting question in my mind is still, what happens when we look at seriously long-term meditators; I expect a reversal of the effect.

Yours as ever,

J

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To be a better person, stop trying to be a good person

Recently I’ve been realizing more and more that it’s unhelpful to want to see yourself as a good person.

That might seem odd, since you might think that of course we’d want to see ourselves as good people, so let me explain the problem I see.

If you think of yourself as a good person, what happens when someone points out that you’ve done something that’s kinda crappy — such as being dishonest about something or having been inconsiderate? It’s important for you to see yourself as a good person, and so you defend yourself. Maybe you even attack or undermine the other person. You want to preserve your view of yourself, because thinking of yourself as “good” is important to you.

This is something I’ve observed in myself. My partner would point out that I’d said something that was, in some minor way, untrue, and I’d deny it. I’d twist what I’d said to try to make it seem true, or say I’d meant something else. In not wanting to let go of my belief in myself as a good person, I slipped further away from being a good person.

A friend was having problems with her boss overruling her expertise on important matters and refusing to give the reasoning behind her decision, other than saying “It’s what I’ve decided.” This was, as you might imagine, undermining. And when she challenged her boss on this all she got was evasion or blame. The boss wanted to convince her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact I think she wanted to convince herself that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Again, in trying to maintain her status as a good person, she behaved like a person who wasn’t good.

Lots of people think of themselves as good, even as they do awful things. They minimize the harm they cause: It wasn’t such a big deal. They deny they’ve even caused harm, even when they’ve committed extreme acts, such as theft, or even sexual abuse or violence against loved ones. The other person deserved it, wanted it. I can’t help thinking that the belief that they are a good person actual enables them to do these things: “I’m a good person, so the things I do can’t be that bad.”

The alternative is not to think you’re a bad person. That’s just as unhelpful.

The alternative is not to think of yourself as any kind of person at all! This is in fact something that the Buddha taught. He said that there was no view of ourselves we can have that isn’t a source of suffering. And by “view” he meant a fixed belief. When a fixed belief about ourselves is challenged, we feel defensive. The reason we were clinging in the first place was to provide a sense of stability and security: I know what I am. I’m a good person.

Not thinking of yourself as good or bad doesn’t leave us in a moral vacuum, unable to decide how to act. In fact it liberates us.

We can see ourselves in two ways:

First, we’re a mixture of good and bad tendencies and qualities (although Buddhism tends to talk in terms of “skillful” and “unskillful” tendencies and qualities). There is no one quality, good or bad, that defines who we are. We’re a mixture, and the composition of that mixture changes, moment by moment. We’re mysterious. We’re indefinable.

Second, we can, if we so choose, have sense of moral direction. If we have a clear idea of the kind of person we want to be, and the kinds of personal qualities we want to embody, and if we commit to that, then that becomes our focus. We see ourselves as works in progress, working to let go of tendencies that harm ourselves and others, and to strengthen and develop qualities that bring benefits instead. The important thing isn’t arriving at the goal; it’s that we have a goal and are working toward it.

Instead of trying to be a good person, aim to do good. Don’t focus your attention on what you are, but on what you do.

This may not seem like much of a shift, but it is. We’re not thinking of ourselves in fixed terms. Rather than seeing ourselves as being static we’re seeing ourselves as dynamic, ever-changing, and responsible for our own ethical destinies.

I’ve found it liberating to be challenged to look at myself more closely and to realize that I’d been slipping into wanting to see myself as good. That’s not helpful. In truth I’m not good. I’m not bad. I’m evolving. And that’s a liberating thing to remember.

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The key to a happier life is learning how to suffer better

Photo by Dawid Zawi?a on Unsplash

One of the Buddha’s key teachings — arguably the key teaching — is the four noble truths, which tell us 1) that suffering happens, 2) that it happens for a reason, which is that we cling, 3) that it’s possible for us to reach a state where we don’t suffer (nirvana), and 4) that there are practices that help us to attain that state.

Although these four truths, or facts, might suggest that we can somehow learn to avoid suffering, what’s really required is that we learn to deal better with life’s sufferings, because they are inevitable. In other words, we need to learn to get better at suffering. It’s not that we should seek suffering, but that when it comes we can learn to respond to it in a way that doesn’t cause us further suffering.

So I have a few suggestions here to help you suffer better.

1. Accept that suffering is just a part of life

If we think that we can somehow go through life on a blissful cloud, we’re going to end up disappointed. And disappointment is just another form of suffering. Thinking we can avoid suffering makes us think we’re failing when suffering inevitably happens.

2. Know that suffering is not a personal failure

It’s very easy for us to form the impression that other people are a lot happier than we are. Social media doesn’t help here, since a lot of people present only the highlights of their lives online. And there are messages like “happiness is a choice” which make us think that if we’re unhappy we must be failing somehow. After all, if we could just choose to be happy we wouldn’t experience a lot of suffering, would we? But suffering is a universal. It’s something we are all going to experience — not just once in a while but every day. It’s not a sign of personal failure when we’re unhappy, but just a sign we’re alive.

3. Recognize when you are suffering

When people hear about suffering they often think of major things like cancer, bereavement, or starvation. Those are weighty forms of suffering, but fortunately they’re relatively rare in our lives. Most of our suffering is on a smaller scale: frustration, worry, anger, disappointment, loneliness, desire, and so on. These kinds of suffering are woven into the fabric of our days. Overlooking that these experiences are painful allows our suffering to run on unchecked. So when you’re frustrated, worried, etc., acknowledge that suffering is present.

4. Turn toward suffering so that you can learn from it

It’s natural to want to turn away from suffering, and to try to replace it with a more pleasant experience. Sometimes this even seems to work, but in the long term it builds up an unhelpful habit of aversion which itself creates more suffering. Ultimately the way out of suffering is through suffering. This means that we have to courageously turn to face painful experiences so that we can observe them with mindfulness and equanimity. Only that way can we learn the deeper lessons of suffering, such as, you are not your suffering.

5. Recognize that you are not your suffering

We often experience suffering “conjoined” with it, as the Buddha put it. We identify with our suffering, as if it’s ourselves. But experiences of suffering are like the reflections of clouds in a lake; they’re just passing through, and aren’t part of the lake itself. When we experience suffering mindfully, we step back from it and observe it as a separate phenomenon. We recognize that it’s not us. And so the suffering feels lighter and more bearable.

6. Take the drama out of your suffering

Painful experiences evolved as a means to motivate us to avoid potential threats, and so they usually catch our attention very effectively. But often our assessment is overblown and we react as if a situation is life-threatening even when there’s no real danger. For example if we were abandoned or ignored a lot in our childhood we may react strongly to the merest hint of someone not responding to us. I’ve found it helps to remember that feelings are simply a warning mechanism, and that it’s ultimately just the firing of neurons in the nervous system. An unpleasant feeling is not the end of the world; it’s just information that you can choose to act on or not.

7. See how your thinking affects your feelings

A lot of the time we just think, think, think, think, think — and the whole time we’re making ourselves miserable. We get so caught up in our stories, and are so convinced that our stories are true and helpful, that we don’t recognize that we’re making ourselves suffer. Once you start noticing how your thoughts affect how you feel, you start finding yourself going, “Whoa! What am I doing to myself right now?” And you have an opportunity to relate in a different way to whatever’s troubling you.

8. See how your feelings affect your thinking

Not only do our thoughts affect how we feel, but our feelings affect how we think. For example, when we’re anxious, we look for things to worry about. When we find we’re in a mood we can choose to observe our unpleasant feelings rather than let them dominate the mind. The mind actively observes, rather than being passively pushed around.

9. Learn to reframe

When we practice mindfulness of our suffering — those messages produced by the mind in order to motivate us to avoid potential threats — we start to see how we construct those messages in the first place. We have internal “rules” about what constitutes a threat. For example, we can have a rule that says “My partner forgetting something I’ve asked them to remember means that they don’t care about me.” When the partner forgets, we feel hurt or afraid, and then perhaps angry or resentful. Realizing we have such rules allows us to rewrite them, and to reframe situations in our lives. For example we can counter the rule above by recognizing that it takes time to learn new habits (the partner remembering that thing) and that people are often preoccupied and distracted, and forget things. The new rules we create should attempt to be realistic and compassionate, otherwise they too will end up causing us to suffer.

10. Relate compassionately to your pain

When a friend’s unhappy you probably treat them with empathy, support, kindness, and compassion, because these are the most appropriate response to pain. Your suffering is just a part of you that’s in pain. Relate to it the same way. Talk to it kindly. Look at it compassionately. Touch it (or the place where it’s manifesting most strongly in the body) with reassurance.

11. Observe the impermanence of your suffering

Think about something in the past that caused you suffering but which now doesn’t bother you. I can think, for example, of a time in my 20s when I got into a small amount of debt and got rally anxious about it. Now, however, I can think about it without feeling the slightest bit bothered. The panic I experienced at that time has just gone. One of our fears about feelings is that we’ll get stuck in them, that we’ll feel depressed or anxious or whatever forever. But our feelings never last. As we observe that fact over and over again it starts to sink in, and we learn to take our feelings less seriously and not overreact to them: OK, I’m feeling sad today. Tomorrow I’ll feel different.

12. Observe the transparency of your feelings

I’ve said that feelings are internally generated sensations arising in the body, and that they act as signals, warning us of potential threats. We tend to respond to painful feelings as if they were actual threats, and so we overreact. It’s as if every time the smoke detector went off while you were cooking you ran out into the street in a panic, rather than looking at the situation and realizing that it was your sizzling veggieburger that was triggering the alarm. If we train ourselves to look very closely at feelings of suffering, we can notice something astonishing; there’s nothing real there. There are just twinkling pinpoints of sensation suspended in space. They’re like holographic projections. It’s a trick of the mind that makes them seem real, and observing the trick closely allows us to see through it.

I believe that when the Buddha talks about ending suffering, he’s not talking about arranging life so that nothing bad happens to us, or even of learning to relate to our experience so skillfully that suffering doesn’t arise. I think he’s talking about the fact that suffering fundamentally doesn’t exist, and that it’s an illusion created by the mind. The mind creates suffering. The mind believes it. But the mind also wants to be free from it. And it can be, if we just look at our experience closely enough, with compassion and with an awareness of impermanence.

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