28 August 2009

Why do we suffer? An alternate take

Blake's SatanIn the first of two essays last week (why do we have a sense of self?) I explored how neuroscience might explain the emergence of self-consciousness or self-awareness. In this second essay I want to use an evolutionary-biology perspective and look at how the emergence of consciousness has left us with the problem of suffering; and why the Buddhist response to suffering is so useful.

In Buddhist terms we could say that we suffer because we are selfish, especially in relationship to sensory stimuli. I've explored this in a number of blog posts recently. [1] In order to find happiness we seek to obtain, maintain and retain pleasurable experiences. These are, however, inherently impermanent and unsatisfactory so that we find life itself unsatisfactory. But why are we this way? Why evolve a faculty that only makes us miserable?

Actually as social animals, despite our sense of being independent selves, we are not inherently selfish: rather we are instinctively gregarious, cooperative and empathetic. As humans, indeed as primates, these are very much part of our genetic heritage. Although there is conflict and competition in all primate groups, they are characterised by a high level of helping each other and working together for the benefit of the troop. So why do we become selfish? I think that the problem is a result of our own success - or because our success at exploiting the environment has outstripped our genetic evolution. We are genetically adapted, to take two examples, to scarce resources (e.g. diets low in sugar and fat) and small group sizes. Pleasurable sensations help motivate us to find and assess the goodness of food, and to contribute to the social group through, for example, cooperation and social grooming; while unpleasant sensations helps us avoid spoiled food and danger for instance. In short we are programmed to experience pleasure as happiness because in the world that we are genetically adapted to this makes us more successful.

About 10,000 years ago we humans began to use our ability to think ahead to our advantage. We began to cultivate food crops rather than scavenging, and to domesticate animals which we had previously only hunted. The result was a reliable food surplus for the first time in history. It was still somewhat related to climate patterns - drought was not unknown - but we could mitigate that through irrigation. We ate well and as a result grew stronger, lived longer, and our groups began to get larger. We began to make large scale permanent dwellings - the first cities seem to date from around 9,000 years ago. Large scale cities with hundreds of thousands of residents became possible as agriculture intensified. Civilisation provides many benefits to us individually and collectively. Importantly it makes reproductive success more likely, much more likely, which is positive in evolutionary terms.

It is sometimes said that humans have stopped evolving but this is not true. [2] It is true however that our cultural and technological evolution has outstripped our genetic evolution by orders of magnitude. In most cases we live in an environment to which are not genetically adapted. This is the result of a trend that began thousands of generations ago, and means that we have to consciously adapt to our circumstances using our ability to learn and innovate. As societies become more complex, we have to be better at learning and teaching these acquired skills because our genetic adaptation is less relevant. It's a self-reinforcing cycle, and the speed of change is increasing!

In a world of generalised surplus the relationship between pleasure and happiness becomes more abstract. [3] Once the relationship becomes abstract then it is a bit like abandoning the gold standard behind money - it's difficult to know the value of anything. The result is that pleasure becomes an end in itself. Similarly any pain, or the lack of pleasure, is bad and to be avoided. This gives rise to two extremes: on the one hand we theorise about an absolutely abstract ultimate pleasure (or equally an absence of pain) which awaits us (usually) in an afterlife; on the other hand we might decide or there is no greater good than pleasure here and now. These are the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism.

As group sizes soar we not only split into increasingly disparate factions, but we become accustomed to being surrounded by strangers to whom we have no social ties - they are not related and not part of our troop and we owe them nothing. Larger social groups require new social structures with arbitrary relationships. We may never meet those who lead our community for instance, or even their deputies. I've never personally spoken to a member of parliament of any country for instance. The result is alienation and a feeling of disconnection between us and the people around us.

So we find ourselves pursuing pleasures with considerable energy and ingenuity, but surrounded and led by strangers, and over several hundred generations this becomes the cultural norm. This is our norm. It creates a deep dissonance within us - emotional as well as cognitive - because we are overstimulated on the one hand, and alienated on the other. We find ourselves plagued by diseases caused by diet such as heart disease, obesity, bowel cancer and diabetes; by drug problems, alienation and depression; and by conflict, crime, civil strife and violence. To some extent this is balanced out, though, because at the same time this dissonance has driven the production of great art, music, literature and drama as people try to give expression to something more wholesome. However we are left with a considerable and worsening problem.

Eventually some individuals began to emerge who used their powers of reflection to examine the human situation. During the so-called Axial Age (ca 800 BCE - 200 BCE) many such individuals appeared including Lao-tzu, K'ung-tzu, Isaiah, Zoroaster, Yajñavalkya, Mahāvīra, Gautama, Pythagoras, and Socrates. One thing they all seem to have done is call into question the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself, and encourage us to relate to each other in more wholesome ways. The greatest of these individuals was Gautama, the Buddha - he saw the nature of the problem more clearly than any other human being before or since. Since the Axial age we Westerners have swung between puritanism and hedonism, from eternalism to nihilism in response to our inner dissonance without any great success in quelling it. For some time now some of us have been exploring the Buddha's middle-way, although in Britain's last census more people identified their religion as Jedi (0.7%) than as Buddhist (0.3%).

Neither hedonism nor puritanism address the underlying relationship we have with sensory stimulus, especially pleasure, so neither can resolve the fundamental dissonance, nor produce lasting happiness. The extent of suffering in the world (various 20th century genocides for instance) makes belief in God untenable for any thinking person, but the abandonment of old values in reaction to the loss of faith has had a devastating effect on society. Plurality has lead to moral relativity and reinforced the confusion over values. The sad truth is that as much as some of us find the choice and variety of contemporary life exciting and stimulating, the majority feel overwhelmed and anxious or angry (fuelled in part by a media with a vested interest in stimulating precisely these emotions). Increasingly people are closing their minds and hearts - or turning for example to drugs [4]; or the ersatz, but less challenging, community provided by the internet. [5]

So we suffer because, as a side effect of civilisation, we have an aberrant relationship with sensory stimulation. Instead of experiencing ourselves as being part of a complex web of relationships with people and the environment, we feel isolated and alienated. We are overstimulated most of the time, and continually stoke the fire because we are convinced that pleasure is happiness in a generalised abstract sense. Selfishness is a by-product of this process, not a cause - which is to turn traditional Buddhist narratives on their head. Civilisation has been a two edged sword which may suggest why periods of barbarism punctuate the history of civilisation. Buddhist practice offers the best way forward because it directly addresses these problems with practical methods and suggestions. [6]

  1. Examples of recent posts on our relationship to the senses include:
  2. see for example 'Humans are still evolving - and it's happening faster than ever'. The Guardian 11.12.2007.
  3. Here I have to make a broad generalisation which glosses over some important questions such as endemic poverty and whether the subsistence farmer is better off than the hunter gatherer etc. Certainly agriculture is at different stages around the world (I've seen farmers using all-wood ox-drawn ploughs in India for instance), but there has been a general trend towards more sophistication. My remarks are intended to apply mainly to my audience who I take to be English speaking internet users.
  4. It is ironic the extent to which terrorism, supposedly the greatest threat to our society, is funded by western drug habits - certainly Middle-Eastern terrorists are funded by opiate production, and opiate production is driven by the demand for illicit opiates in the west.
  5. See my comments on virtual community [19.9.08]
  6. Although Buddhist practice is the overall theme of this blog I did summarise the entire Buddhist path in a way which is relevant to the current post in another two-parter back in 2005: - part one (generosity, ethics, and patience), and part two (vigour, meditation, wisdom).

21 August 2009

Why do we have a sense of self?

image of a man by LeonardoThis essay is part one of two in which I explore how contemporary ideas in neuroscience and evolutionary biology can help to make sense of the human condition and the Buddhist response to it. I begin with selfhood, the sense of being a 'self'. The notion of a self - having a self, being a self - comes in for sustained and often bitter criticism from Buddhists. I have argued in several blog posts [1] that it is not the self per se that is the problem, since without it we could not function, but selfishness or self-preoccupation. Selflessness, the opposite of selfishness, is not the absence of a self, but an attitude which values others at least as much, if not more, than one's self.

One might well ask why the very idea of selfhood - often the word 'ego' is used though it hardly fits the context - is so problematic for Buddhists? And if the sense of self is the root of all our problems, why do we even have it? Why did we evolve so unsatisfactory a faculty in the first place? I find the traditional answers to this question deeply unsatisfying and I know from talking to other Buddhists that I'm not alone in this. [2]

I've dealt with some of these questions in previous posts (see below) so here I want to look at where the sense of self comes from and why we have it. This is one area in which we need to quietly drop the tradition and find a better answer. I believe that neuroscience can provide a more satisfying answer to these kinds of questions, while leaving us the full scope of Buddhist practice as the best response the problems we encounter.

To my mind the best explanation for we we have a sense of self is put forward by Antonio Damasio in his book The Feeling of What Happens. Organisms, he says, are complex self-regulating mechanisms. Even a single cell is able to respond to changes in it's environment which allow it to survive better than if it were simply passive. So for instance if we are too hot we sweat, this fluid evaporates and this cools us down. This process has limits, but it enables us to tolerate a wide range of hot conditions, opening up ecological niches that might not be available otherwise. However sweating means we lose salt, and therefore we must ingest more salt. So the situation is complex and requires constant monitoring. In order to most successfully monitor our current state we need to compare a number of variables from the present (e.g. temperature, salt levels) with those in the past. Ideally we will have access to information about both the immediately preceding moment, but also to some longer term data which enables us to respond to trends in change. Even a single cell organism is able to monitor and adjust for such quantities as salinity, temperature, internal pressure, availability of food, light and dark, presence of predators, toxins, pathogens; and to do this without anything like sentience. We humans have a far bigger job. On top of each cell monitoring and regulating itself in concert with it's neighbours near and far, we have internal structures and systems such as organs; and we have an overview of the whole for maintaining things like balance, and readiness for action, and for the all important social interactions that we maintain. There is a vast, elaborate array of internal states at a variety of levels to keep track of. This is the primary function of our brain. We map all of this information in our minds - largely unconsciously - and keep track of it. This is the most rudimentary level of consciousness.

We also maintain archives of previous states: we can compare our present state to the immediate past so that we can respond to trends in the environment. If I am a little hotter now, but know that I'll be cooler again soon because it's late afternoon and the sun is getting low in the sky, then the need to cool my body is less urgent. Longer term memory enables us to understand trends and minor fluctuations better. But a consequence of this ability to compare our present state with many previous states is that we develop a sense of continuity. There is our map of our internal states now, and there are all these previous states. Demasio argues that the sense of continuity is an illusion. Consciousness is a series of discreet states of awareness, a snapshot of how we are now that can be compared with how we have been. This happens fast and often enough to give a sense of continuity - much like a film gives the illusion of motion by using 25 frames per second.

At some point in the evolution of this faculty the comparison of states begins to take in mental states. When it takes in the act of comparing then there is an element of self-awareness. We become aware of being aware, and because of the sense of continuity we have the feeling that there is a constant presence 'I' behind the observations and acting on them. However contra what most Buddhists say the 'I' naturally experiences itself as embedded in a complex web of relationships with the environment and other individuals. 'I' is not naturally alienated from these relationships. [3] Next week I'll look more at why 'I' has become alienated, and in two weeks will look at the 'I' as the basis for empathy.

This is not mere epiphenomenalism - the idea that consciousness is caused by the matter of the brain, and not the other way around - because it suggests that the demands of consciousness have driven the evolution of the brain. If anything the brain is an epiphenomenon of consciousness.

A further advance on this faculty is the ability to predict future states. This is the basis of imagination - the ability to project ourselves into the future and see if a course of action is fruitful, or if a situation is likely to be dangerous. It enables us to plan ahead, to predict the kind of impact the environment is going to have on us and to make preparations. It enables us to devise ways to overcome problems before they arise - by building a structure to keep the rain off before it comes, or planting crops that won't be harvested for several months, and to store food for winter or famine. Without the 'I' none of this would be possible.

The sense of being an embodied self, then, emerges naturally from the evolving faculties of the human organism, and it is important to our healthy functioning. However we are still left with the problem of suffering and what to do about it, which is the subject of next week's essay.

  1. Links to my other blog posts on ego.

  2. Many people struggle to see how suffering in this life is caused by actions in a previous life for instance. Also on the one hand saṃsara is said to have no beginning, no first cause; while on the other Buddhist cosmogonical myths suggest that we have fallen from a pure state at some point in the distant past, and Mahāyāna Buddhists talk of original purity. This begs the question of how we became defiled! The Buddhist discourse on self (ātman) makes little sense, in my view, unless we understand the intellectual context of the day: for my take on this see Anatta in Context [24.10.08] So we're left with considerable ambiguity.
  3. I looked at this in my post: The Meaning of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ particularly with reference to Glucklich, Ariel. 1997. The End of Magic. Oxford University Press.

14 August 2009

Lest We Forget

Harry PatchIn Britain last week 'we' were been saying farewell to 111 year old Harry Patch. Although most of us had never heard of him a month ago Patch, and 113 year old Henry Allingham who also died recently, had fought in World War One. Patch had been the last British man alive to have seen active services in the trenches, and had been very critical of war. "It wasn't worth it" he said. He had kept quiet about his wartime experiences until quite recently, but felt compelled to speak out when he realised that he was one of the very few left with first hand experience and that the rest of us were in danger of forgetting just how stupid is all was.

Politicians and military people seem to feel no irony in lauding Patch and repeating his sentiments as noble and reasonable. War, according to Harry Patch, is "organised murder"; and, I would add, not very well organised in most cases. Asked what Patch would have made of the conflict in Afghanistan, Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, is reported to have said: "He would recognise there is an inevitability that when relations break down often fighting ensues." Would he? He was quite unequivocal in life, but Dannatt would have him be something of a pragmatist in death. Perhaps death brings a new perspective on organised murder?

In Afghanistan and Iraq Western soldiers are engaged in daily battles - many of these 'soldiers' are only teenagers. They were sent there to kill and be killed by these same politicians, and at least in the case of the Iraq war we can be reasonably sure that they lied about the reasons for starting the war. The avowed purpose of invading Afghanistan was to break the regime of the Taliban which harboured terrorists, and to disband Al-Qaeda and capture it's leader, former US Ally, Osama bin Laden. It has done none of these. The result of both conflicts has been civil war, with western forces in the middle. The media here daily report on the individual deaths of British Soldiers, but tens of thousands of local people have died and they continue to bear the brunt. The objective is nowhere in sight, and is being subtly replaced by something more achievable. By the end of the process the government will say that they achieved their objectives because by then the objectives will have become whatever was achieved. They will be rather like bankers receiving bonuses when the banks they ran went bankrupt.

Why are people in the Middle east - in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, etc - fighting back? Don't we offer the world prosperity and democracy and all the benefits these imply? Why are they so ungrateful? I don't have time to go over the whole history but I could summarise it by saying that the West has always sought only it's own prosperity in dealing with these nations and usually at their expense; we have frequently connived and plotted against the people - Western governments have propped up and armed(!) authoritarian regimes which were anti-democratic.* The flat truth is that Western governments, especially the governments of the UK and the US, cannot be trusted. Hell, even we the people no longer trust our own governments to be truthful and fair-dealing. The current wars are just typical behaviour for our nations. 'We' still think it's worth it. So we pay lip service to Patch and continue to start wars.

There are several reasons I seldom write about politics and politicians. I think that paying attention to them only encourages them - they are like sociopaths who misbehave in order to get attention. Secondly, though I can navigate some subjects with confidence, I find politics baffling. It's usually better to say nothing under these circumstances. Thirdly I see this blog as a way for me to work through my thinking on Buddhism and the Dharma, and frankly I fail to see how the Dharma can help with politics. All of which tends to put me in a bad mood, but the hypocrisy of warmongering politicians seemed to need some kind of comment.

In order for the Dharma to make a difference individuals must recognise the need for change, realise that the Dharma represents the best way forward, commit themselves to practice and persevere over quite a long period of time. One must resist the temptations of materialism and the crush of peer pressure and strike out on one's own. Conditions are generally against this kind of life, against this kind of inquiry. The political arena is particularly unsuitable for taking up the spiritual life because it is popularist, combative and materialistic.

One might argue that spiritual leaders can make large scale changes. One does see charismatic spiritual leaders able to mould the thinking and behaviour of their followers, but this usually involves abdicating personal responsibility and self-awareness. What often happens is that immature people follow blindly, and then at a later stage have a violent reaction against the authority figure and blaming them for their own weakness of will. How well we know this scenario in Western Buddhism! As Buddhists we are in a dilemma - we benefit from a stable society with freedom of religion (just as in the Buddha's time!), and yet in order to participate in the political process which ensures those freedoms we inevitably compromise our values. I don't know how to resolve this.

Let us not forget nor dishonour our dead, nor forget why they were killed. I do feel compassion for those who gave their lives, and those whose lives were taken against their will. This feeling has grown since I came to live in the UK where war is real in a way that it never seems to be in New Zealand. Let us also remember the history of conflicts and what lead our countries into conflict. These are days when we know the price of education but not the value of it, and this makes us very short sighted. History would seem to be more vital than any subject at present. Let our schools teach the history of Western involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran (and and the rest of the world) openly and honestly so that we may learn the lessons of history - that arrogance, double dealing and greed will breed hatred and mistrust; that as we have sown, so we are reaping. Perhaps we should not be so quick to resist the popular notion of karma - what goes around, comes around - in the case of politicians? They seem to believe that the consequences of one's actions can be avoided by skilful manoeuvring - they don't personally go to war.

Hopefully I won't feel compelled to write about politics for a long time to come.

* A useful summary of Western involvement in Iraq/Afghanistan/Iran can be found in Wheen, Francis. How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World : A Short History of Modern Delusions. Harper 2004. Especially chapter 7 'Us and Them'.

image: Harry Patch from Sailing to Byzantium.

07 August 2009

Beauty vs Sensuality

A Street Car Named Desire Movie PrintToday's text, the Nibbedhika Sutta*, does not begin "thus have I heard" and it does not tell us where the Buddha was staying. This oversight may be a puzzle because we sometimes hear that this is how all suttas begin. Actually many texts in the Aṅguttara and Saṃyutta Nikāyas lack this distinctive introduction. We get no preamble this time, the Buddha just launches straight in, saying:
Nibbedhikapariyāyaṃ vo, bhikkhave, dhammapariyāyaṃ desessāmi
I will teach on the subject of insight, Bhikkhus, an explanation of the principles.
Nibbedhika means 'penetrating, piercing, scrutinising, sharp'; dhamma here most likely means The Dhamma, that is the Dhamma (capital Dh), as law or principle, the teachings of the Buddha. Pariyāyaṃ is an interesting word. The root is √yā meaning 'going, moving' which also gives us the word yātrā meaning a journey expedition, or a pilgrimage. √yā is a derivative of the Indo-European root √ei, from which we get the English word 'ion' (via the Greek ienai 'go,') - so called because the ionised atoms in a solution move towards an electrode of opposite charge. The prefix pari- usually means 'around' so the underlying meaning is 'to go around'. So it comes to mean something repeated - such as a ritual or a mantra - and via this 'teaching' since teaching was done by repetition. It is drawing on a central metaphor in Indian culture - the way that things repeat themselves according to certain laws or principles and the rituals that base themselves on this repetition; the way that stories are told again and again in the same way; and also the way that oral teachings are handed down through repetition. As such it can refer to the going around, or what makes things go around, ie "what is going on". The -ya suffix indicates adjectives which have the sense of 'relating to'. So pariyāya is relating to what goes around, or the underlying principles of what goes around. As such we could see dhammapariyāya as a play on words, because dhamma shares much of this semantic field. The abhidhamma used pariyāya as a label for a more figurative (i.e. metaphorical) discourse as opposed to something more literal, but I'm not sure it applies to this sutta as the ideas are quite straight forward.

Basically the sutta looks at various factors of experience and analyses them in terms of cause (nidānasambhavo), difference (vemattatā), result (vipāko), cessation (nirodho) and way to bring about cessation (nirodhagāminī). In many ways it's quite a straight-forward Buddhist text on conditionality. It's similar to many other presentations, especially those related to the Four Noble Truths. However amidst this rather arid analysis is a few lines of verse. I find Pāli verse difficult to translate, but having seen someone else's translation I knew I wanted to have a go because the message of these lines of verse is rather striking.
Saṅkapparāgo purisassa kāmo,
Na te kāmā yāni citrāni loke;
Saṅkapparāgo purisassa kāmo,
Tiṭṭhanti citrāni tatheva loke;
Athettha dhīrā vinayanti chandanti.
The passion for his own thoughts is the desire of a man,
Not those beautiful aspects of the world.
The passion for his thoughts is the desire of a man:
The beautiful aspects of the world remain just so,
Though the wise give up desire.
As I say I found this striking if only because the Pāli texts rarely use this kind of language. An important distinction, a very important distinction, is being made here. This is a rare reference to beauty and it's response is not the usual rhetoric - that what we find beautiful is in fact ugly. Here the beauty of the world is not denied, but admitted. The word I am translating as beauty, by the way, is citra - you won't find this in the Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary (which I usually refer to as PED following scholarly convention). I found it in the Vipassana Research Institute dictionary which accompanies their Pāli Canon CD. The word is the same in Sanskrit where the primary meaning is 'conspicuous, excellent, distinguished; conspicuous, excellent, distinguished, bright, clear, bright-coloured' but covers senses such as 'variegated, agitated, manifold, strange, extraordinary'. In short it describes the world (loka) in all it's strange and wonderful forms.

Note though that the beauty itself, the world itself, is not the problem. The problem is, in Pāli, saṅkhappa-rāgo. Rāga is quite near in meaning to our word 'passion', especially used in it's now somewhat archaic sense of something by which one is overcome. The word is often used in reference to the martyrdom of saints when they die horribly for instance. These days we see passion in more positive light, as the strong motivations and feelings to act or appreciate something - whether it be art, politics, injustice, a lover, or football. The present usage hides the often involuntary aspect of passion which is still present. We are frequently not in a position to choose what we are passionate about. The etymology of rāga shows us that it derives from the root √raj 'shining', and means 'colour, hue, dye' especially red. Red is the colour of passion, of arousal, but also of anger (red faced) and intolerance (red necked). [see also my blog on the Red Rite]

And the thing that a person (purissa, literally 'a man') is passionate about is their saṅkappa. PED defines sankappa as 'thought, intention, purpose, plan'. I can't resist one more etymology because kappa (Sanskrit kalpa) is from √kḷp which has the distinction of the being the only Sanskrit verbal root to contain the vowel 'ḷ'. Kḷp in fact suggests 'ordering' and with saṃ- is in Sanskrit: 'to bring about, to desire, to produce' (saṃ- changes to saṅ- when followed by k). Switching back to Pāli it seems as though the literal meaning has been colonised by a figurative one which only relates to the mental sphere. So what a person is passionate about, or overcome by, is what is produced in their own minds, what is desired in their own minds - in relationship to the beauty in the world.

A corollary of this is that removing anything beautiful from the world, or scorning the beautiful is not going to solve the problem, because the problem is not with the world, but it is with how we see it and respond to it. My own teacher has extolled the virtue of beauty even, because art - great art anyway - can lift your consciousness and being to a higher level. If fact his definition of art focuses on this potential for raising us up. Natural beauty also can refresh and inspire us. We need not be too puritanical about beauty. We need not be puritanical at all, just observe what our mind is doing in response to the world and make rational decisions on what we have observed.

The image which comes to mind for me is a moth dancing around a candle flame. While the candle flame is far from permanent, it does to some extent represent a fixed point around which the moth flies it's crooked path. Beauty in the world is just like this - it remains (tiṭṭhati) as the text says - and the problem is that our moth-like minds are enthralled by it, and occasionally we fly into the fire and are burned by it. Like the moth however we often do not learn from this, but fly at it again and again because the light seems irresistible.

Fortunately we are not moths and we do, as I pointed out a couple of week ago [Do we have a choice?], have some choice in how we respond to the world, the light is resistible. So the wise person (dhīra) gives up desires (chanda). That is to say that the wise person reflects on their responses to sensory stimulus and figures out that the basic, inbuilt, habitual responses just don't bring happiness or fulfilment; and so they re-evaluate their relationship to seeking pleasure. I plan to say more about this in a couple of weeks.

* Nibbedhika Sutta. AN 6.63. (PTS: A iii 410). My translations. Also translated by Bhikkhu Thanisarro @ Access to Insight, and by Piya Tan @ Dharmafarer.

Image: Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Street Car Named Desire. Dr Marco's High Quality Movie Scans.
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