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Dharma Practice, Transmogrified

Last year my dharma practice transmogrified.

Let’s call this Part 1: What Happened.

I had been practicing in a general way for some years. Omnivorous, secular, hot on cognitive science and evolutionary psychology while grazing here and there the texts and contemplative practices of various religious traditions. Rummaging around in the dharma bin, but unable to articulate what I was looking for.

Like many of us, I experienced various successes: saw progress in personal flourishing, improved relationships; I began, as David Harris articulates, “to be less of an asshole”. But it was nebulous. There wasn’t something I could point to and say, “That! I’m doing that!” I was an MBSR teacher, but I couldn’t draft an elevator pitch.

Then, in July of 2019…

I attended a retreat co-taught by Mark Akincano Weber and Dr. Judson Brewer: “Pleasure, Like, & Craving: Buddhist, Psychological, and Neuroscientific Perspectives.” It was an exploration of four of the aspects of human experience enumerated in the theory of Dependent Origination, Pratītyasamutpāda (pardon my Pāli): Pleasure (Vedanā), Like (Anurodha), Craving (Taṇhā), and Grasping (Upādāna).

They explored these aspects of experience from different conceptual frames: the Sutta Pitaka (Theravada Canon), modern psychology (particularly psychotherapy and behaviorism), and cognitive science (particularly neuroscience and philosophy of mind).

I came away a zealot. Here was a method of dissecting human experience within the context of interwoven conceptual frames that complemented my own dissected, interwoven life. A method of studying the dharma and cognitive science that felt broad enough to accommodate the understanding I had developed as a biologist, philosopher, military officer, activist, and dharma practitioner.

Let’s call this Part 2: A Theory of the Problem.

I teach suffering and the cessation of suffering.” ~Gotama

Seems to me that one of the problems with the Mindfulness Movement is that we haven’t done a stellar job articulating what we are about. There are many traditions. There are many techniques. In public we don’t talk about the “B-word”, in private we talk about “Truths”. We point to a lot of symptoms: Mindfulness can help you stop smoking! Mindfulness can help you sleep better! Mindfulness will reduce your stress! This may be true. In fact, several scientific studies done by serious people at serious institutions suggest that these claims are true.

But we are failing to point to the thing itself. Human beings’ experience of being alive can be really dissatisfying. Sometimes mildly annoying, sometimes suicide-inducing. And we don’t know what to do about it. We keep trying stuff, and for most of us, most of the time, it doesn’t work great. We may numb out for a while on Netflix, or we may give ourselves temporary highs by shopping or insert-your-preferred-sensory-or-psychological-indulgence-here. But when it’s over, we’re back where we started. With a gnawing, insidious, restless dissatisfaction. We don’t know what to do about it, and speaking of it to another human being is inconceivable.

Actually, I think there are two points to be made about the negative aspects of human experience. The first is the aforementioned dissatisfaction. The second is what the Greeks named Akrasia. I know I should act in a particular way: stop smoking, go to the gym, call my mother. And yet, somehow, days, months, years go by. I’m still smoking and out of shape and my mother still bemoans her progeny at bridge club.

So here are two unpleasant aspects of our experience: we are dissatisfied and there is a gap between what we know we should do and what we seem capable of doing. These are not isolated; Akrasia is dissatisfying. But I believe it is helpful to point out this behavioral aspect within the dissatisfaction. More on that later.

I think we in the Mindfulness Movement, or Secular Dharma, or however you’d like to call it, are failing our culture by clickbaiting on symptoms when we should be boldly pointing to the fact of the human condition. We suffer. And that suffering may be on a greater or lesser scale. We practitioners know the same thing the advertising agencies know. Humans suffer. And we want to stop suffering. And on a cultural and personal level, we seem to have no idea what to do about it.

And now Part 3: So what?

Only a few days into that July retreat the excitement began roiling in my belly. Could this be it? Could this pleasure, like, and craving stuff, which I have never seen highlighted within the mindfulness space, could this be the shiny object I salvaged from the dharma bin?

After the retreat I read more about Dependent Origination and the arguments for its correspondence with Operant Conditioning and began reviewing the neuroscience of teasing apart our experience. I wriggled and exclaimed and enthusiastically forwarded scientific articles to reluctant recipients.

It seems to me that we are being taken for a collective ride by our minds and our experience of consciousness. We mistake willpower, an easily fatiguing “muscle” of the mind, for morality. We beat ourselves up for “failing” when the fact is that we exist in a world in which our experience is under constant onslaught from advertising agencies spending billions of dollars tweaking the world to make us purchase without understanding why.

My personal experience, through contemplative practice, lifehacking, and heeding Socrates’ advice has been that if we can understand how our minds work, we can take charge of the tweaking; we can create conditions in which we flourish as individuals, as societies, and I propose, as a biosphere. I believe teasing apart these aspects of experience, neurologically, philosophically, and pragmatically, will take us a long way towards understanding why we are sometimes so forlorn, so wretched, despite (for many of us) living in the best material conditions the human species (or any species) has ever experienced.

So here it is, the transmogrification. Having left behind my restless rummaging, I am now embarked on a personal PhD of sorts. Exploration and trans-culturation of these aspects of Dependent Origination (pleasure, like, craving, and grasping) over four years of study, teaching, and practice, cumulating in an almost certainly unreadable book. The project will consume my life, and I will be broke while slogging through it. (All my PhD friends nod sagely at this descriptor.)

I am excited to document the journey, to share discoveries and failures and pitiable but charming anecdotes of my attempts at learning Pāli. (My next YouTube channel: Pitiable Pāli…) In my wildest dreams I will write what is fascinating to me and so attract others who are also fascinated and our understanding and wisdom will grow together.

Often times my best ideas feel like pipe dreams. Too audacious to even fathom beginning. But what the heck? Let it be a marvelous disaster. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. See you again soon.

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