11 June 2006


Self-portraitI've been going through a rather bleak, albeit creative, period lately - a bit of a crisis really. My dilemma is that I have a day job which pays the bills but which is dull and uninspiring, and I have this other job which involves managing my various websites, writing raves, and doing various art and music projects, which is enormously inspiring and fulfilling, but which currently doesn't pay anything. Actually that's not quite right because my 'hobbies' actually cost me money. Much of my 'work' is not self-centred, but involves creating resources for my my Sangha - a Yahoo discussion group here, an online newsletter there, and most recently an extensive website on the calligraphy of mantras and seed syllables.

And I find it difficult to see how I can turn my 'work' into a livelihood. As well as being worn out from doing two jobs, and feeling stuck, I have experienced quite a lot of despondency lately. I'm told, but have never found the source, that despondency is a form of laziness. That it's just giving into self-pity. And that is true to some extent. But to me there is something more to it. I think despondency is failure to see that things change.

Which brings me to my theme this week. In order to maintain my energy and enthusiasm in the face of adversity I have to believe that I can win, that I can through my labours at least make headway against the current which drags me along - the current of worldly values, of conformity, of negativity, of greed, hatred and delusion. And why? Because if there is no possibility of making progress then striving is pointless. Back in the days before ethics committes, a bunch of psychologists tormented dogs by giving them electric shocks. Some were able to stave off being shocked by doing some action such as pressing a lever. However if the lever stopped working, they soon gave up trying. The dogs just became gibbering wrecks who cowered in corners and accepted the torture with a whimper - ie the dogs understood that nothing they did could stop the torture, and they just gave up. I'm thankful that we now have ethics committees, but it I think this example, gross as it is, graphically illustrates the point. We need hope that things can change and/or that we can change them.

Now this identifies me as someone who does not hold with the style of Buddhist practice in which there is no goal, no need to do anything, just be, blah blah. There are a number of ways in which I find this approach unsatisfactory. When I have asked people espousing this view why they bother to practice I have never had a sensible answer. And this is crucial because these people often practice a lot. Why bother to spend all that time sitting if there is no point? Anyway I ain't one of them.

The possibility of making progress - how ever we define progress - is important. This kind of basic Buddhism really works for me: there is suffering (yes there sure is!); there is a source of suffering which is ______ (choose your poison); there is an end to suffering, which involves removing the poison; the way to end suffering is the Noble Eight-fold Path. Leaving aside a detailed exposition on the Eightfold path, isn't that a great concept for anyone who is suffering? That suffering can end is highly motivating for me. The Eeyores who focus on the first of the Noble Truths, are missing the whole point. The Noble Truths as a set really do get me excited because they offer hope. They acknowledge suffering (unlike some of the 'no goal' kin, who also espouse a sort of no 'suffering' deal as well) and then they offer some hope that suffering - this present suffering as well as any possible future suffering - can stop.

At this point we're just taking it on faith. It sounds good, and we've got the cheque book out and we're keen to sign up to this whole Eightfold Path deal. Can't wait. But the Dharma isn't quite like that. What happens next is a bit more refined. Someone, or maybe even a book, says "OK, do a little of 'this', and see what happens". 'This' may be meditation, or sutra chanting, or basic mindfulness, or puja, or just being gratuitously kind and generous. So we do a little, and we find that ... we feel a bit different... a bit better/happier/saner (or whatever). Now this is really exciting because not only do we have Sacred Scripture, and Holy Water, and maybe some exotic guru, but we have actual personal experience of the path working for us. We don't need to believe anything which makes no sense, which feels wrong, or which runs counter to our experience - perhaps this is why Buddhism got a reputation as a rationalist philosophy. Actually some of the practices are pretty weird, and some of the traditional beliefs are just as dodgy as anything in the Bible, but the important thing is not what you believe or don't believe, it's how you practice and the fruits of that practice.

I think the most important insight that comes from practice is that actions have consequences - ie what we do, or don't do, influences the future. The world is not just a totally random series of events, and neither is it rigidly determined. We have influence to the extent that we choose our actions, and we have choices to the extent that we are aware. And, I would say, we have hope to the extent that we are aware and able to make choices.

So when I lose sight of this important insight - that things change, and that I can at the least influence that change - then I just give up and, like those poor bloody hounds, sit in a corner and whimper. This is Mara temporarily winning the battle against the Bodhisatta (if I may be so bold as to cast myself in that role). Fortunately I seem to have some kind of keel these days that flips me right-side up after a bit. I call this Saddha - the faith that things can change and that I can influence that change in the direction of Awakening. Saddha, is a specific kind of hope born of practice and observation. This is the benefit of practice, that a habit of awareness gives you choices in any situation. In any life the winds of the world can blow strongly, and temporaily overwhelm us. But by building up awareness over years, we lay down a keel that will right us eventually.

It's good to be right-side up again, and to be full of hope and inspiration. Awareness is revolutionary, eh!

03 June 2006

Authentic Happiness

Recently I've been reading Martin Seligman's book Authentic Happiness. Seligman is a psychologist (as opposed to a psychotherapist) which is to say that he is a scientist who studies the psyche. Psychology typically focuses on dysfunction and negative emotions, but Seligman had a change of heart about 10 years ago and started studying positive emotions, and has developed what he calls "Positive Pscyhology".

Something that has stood out for me is Seligman's summary of what scientific (ie controlled, double blind etc) studies have shown is the importance of nature and the environmental factors, and in particular the way past experience, especially childhood experiene, impacts on the adult psyche. Freud famously associated adult unhappiness (I'm going to use this term very loosely!) with childhood unahppiness - the events of our childhood, so the theory goes, shape the person that we are. This approach assumes that we are all born as a tabula rasa on which events write out the person that we will become.

And so eventually, after decades of just accepting this on face value - because after all it sounds quite reasonable doesn't it? - some psychologist went looking for the effect. They studied children, followed them into adulthood, and most interestingly searched out twins that had been raised apart, and adopted children. And what they found is the events, the traumas even, of childhood are actually very poor predictors of adult success and happiness. Seligman says: "The major traumas of childhood may have some influence on adult personality, but only a barely detectable one. Bad childhood events, in short, do not mandate adult troubles". [Authentic Happiness p.67]. The studies seem to show that rather than events and upbringing (ie nuture), our response to past events is highly correlated to how our parents responded, suggesting a genetic (ie nature) link. This is reinforced by stydying mono-zygotic twins raised apart who are always more alike to each other than to other siblings however they were raised, and by studies of adopted children who are always more like their birth parents than their adopted parents.

This genetic link is important because it is how we respond to our memories, how we think, reflect on, and consider, our memries which is a strong conditioning factor in whether we are happy or not. We are born with a predisposition to dwell on the past in positive or negative ways. However Sleigman's whole book is predicated on the premise that it is possible to change this response. Scientific studies, again, show that it is possible to recognise that dwelling on painful past events is causing us to suffer, and that by changing our focus - Seligman highlights the importance of gratitude for instance - we can change our experience of that past and be happier. So depsite being born with certain tendencies we have the capacity to over-ride these and substitute more positive tendencies.

Now this rave is written by a Buddhist and with Buddhists in mind, and anyone who knows a bit about Buddhism is going to be finding this quite a familiar idea. There's no suggestion that Seligman is a Buddhist, he's working this out from studying people. Interesting, eh?

Seligman goes on to discuss other things that do or don't make for happy people. More money, material possessions, more education, gender, class and geography are poor predictors of happiness. Some of the poorest people in the world report being no less happy than some of the richest, although there is some geographical variation in this: the poor in the third world, and typically happier then the poor in the first world.

One factor which is a good predictor of happiness is religosity. Religious people do tend to be happier, and the more religious they are the happier they report themselves to be. There is some objective evidence for this as well since they tend to be healthier and more long lived, and to have lower levels of "mental illness". So why should religious people be more happy? It turns out to be related to hope. Religious people aremore optimistic about the future - and isn't a lot of religion aimed at this? Buddhism too is soteriological and teleological in it's outlook. We practice in order to experience less suffering, in order to have more meaningful life. And we achieve it, so we are happier. Well more or less and on average anyway.

This aspect of hope is one that interests me and one that I'd like to come back to at some point. Because one school of Buddhist thought suggests that thinking about the future at all is counter productive and that we just need to live in the present moment and be fully accepting of whatever is happening. Pema Chodron, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, goes so far as to suggest that we adopt the aphorism: Abandon hope [in When Things Fall Apart]. Although I rate the Ven Pema highly, I'm not so keen on this approach. I think if there is something we can reasonably do about our pain and suffering then we should go ahead and do that. Simply staying in pain and being equanamous about it seems eminently impractical. If you are on fire it makes more sense to jump in a lake, than to stand there reflecting that from the ultimate point of view there is no fire and no pain (or whatever).

Anyway I'm enjoying Authentic Happiness. The book is backed up by a good website where you can take the myriad psychological tests that appear in the book, and it keeps track of your responses over time to see if things do actually change. His other book Learned Optimism also sounds intriguing.
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