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Dharma PhD (the podcast) Episode 4

Dharma PhD podcast Episode 4, hit the airwaves this morning. Yay! Come and have a listen while Co-host and I talk about John Peacock’s “Buddhism Before the Theravada, Part 3”. We talk about the Tilakkhana, the Three Marks of Existence, I offer a new translation of Dukkha (22:24), and we discuss the application of ancient insights to modern lives.

If you’d like to explore further, a link to Peacock’s talk and the transcript to that talk are here. If you have any feedback or comments, I’d love to hear from you!

Sorry about the not-fancy player. I don’t know how to convince WordPress to give you a better one yet…

Following is a mostly-AI-produced transcript of the podcast episode, if that’s of interest…

[00:00:00]

 Shannon: Greetings, Friendlies! Welcome to Dharma PhD: conversations about the science, philosophy, and culture of mindfulness and secular Buddhism. I’m your host, Shannon M Whitaker, joined by my fabulous cohost, Jeff street. Welcome Jeff.

Jeff: Hello, thanks for having me.

Shannon: Yeah.

Jeff: Pleasure to be here.

Shannon: Thrilled to have you. Are you kidding me?

Jeff: What are we gonna talk about today?

Shannon: Today, you will not be surprised to learn, we will be talking about the third in a series of six talks given by John Peacock titled, “Buddhism before the Theravada”.

Jeff: Is that the title of this particular talk or the series of talks?

Shannon: That’s the title of the series.

Jeff: Okay.

Shannon: Thanks for clarifying. I thought it might be helpful to list the points we’ve articulated so far from talks one and two.

Jeff: Yeah. A little refresher would be nice.

Shannon: Okay, great. Point one was that, Siddhatha Gotama was not trying to start a religion, but rather a practical philosophy of human flourishing. Point number two was that Gotama was a social critic. His teachings were deeply [00:01:00] engaged with his culture and we should be deeply engaged with our culture. And point number three, Gotama’s Teachings are grounded in ethics. my favorite definition of ethics that we came up with was ethics as an exploration of discovering what behavior helps and harms sentient beings. Is there anything else that you think would be worth mentioning?

Jeff: That seems like a really good high level summary.

Shannon: Okay awesome. Before we start covering the material from the talk, there’s something else that I thought might be interesting to bring up. For each episode, I think of a theme and the theme isn’t necessarily the name of the episode.  in episode two, the theme was introduction. I wanted to give our listeners an opportunity to learn more about us and particularly about my approach to the teachings.  And I used Peacock’s talk as a way to do that. In episode three the theme was ethics, which is in fact what we talked [00:02:00] about.

Jeff: So does today’s episode, have a theme?

Shannon: Glad you asked the theme for this episode is that in my opinion, the next step in human flourishing is learning to understand how our minds work.

Jeff: Okay. That sentence construction of saying the next step, is it important to understand it in the context of other steps?

Shannon: Yes, I think so.  Do you remember, we were in the park the other day, talking with our friend, Dan and I was talking about Maslow’s hierarchy, and I’ll put a link in the show notes to Maslow’s hierarchy if people aren’t familiar, and I said that in my opinion, we’ve kind of figured out how to solve the bottom few levels of the hierarchy. You had mentioned…

Jeff: Food, shelter, reproduction, that kind of thing.

Shannon: Right, right. Of course there are great inequities, both domestically and internationally with whether or not we have in fact solve those, but we’ve kind of figured out how to clothe people and how to house people and how to feed people. But despite [00:03:00] that we, particularly in the US, and I can say having lived in Western Europe, also Western European culture, we’re still pretty unhappy despite having solved these base level problems of the hierarchy, we are still a, grasping and anxious culture, much of the time.

And it seems to me that the next steps in understanding and moving towards human flourishing, I guess we used to think like,Oh, if only everybody had a comfortable house, Oh, if only everybody had enough to eat, Oh, if only, and then we got there and we’re still a hot mess as a society, arguably.  So it seems to me that the next steps are going to be found in these upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Less about bodily needs and more about emotional and psychological needs.  The stuff that minds are made of, so learning how to understand our minds is sort of the next step in human flourishing.

Dan had said that  we’re trying to figure out the [00:04:00] top levels of Maslow’s hierarchy with a brain that evolved to solve the lower l evels.

Jeff: Yeah. I remember that line. That’s a good line

Shannon: That was very wise of him.

I think that even understanding that is hugely important.

Jeff: Without understanding the details of what aspects of the mind , but just the idea that it’s kind of geared for one thing. And now we’re trying to do another thing with that tool.

Shannon: Exactly. Because so many of us, right, wonder why can’t I just think my way out of my problems?

Jeff: Mmhmm. I wonder that. I try to do it all the time and I won’t ever learn it’s my, you know, it’s my M O.

Shannon: So all this to say, I believe that the next key in unlocking human flourishing is learning to understand our minds. How does that land for you? Is that interesting?

Sold. 

Jeff: tell me about my mind. Yeah, I do feel that way. I do feel sometimes as though, I’m I’m stuck inside a thing and I can’t see it [00:05:00] from the outside

Shannon: Yeah. Because you’re inside of it.

Jeff: Inside of it. Yeah. And, I think that’s what you mean

Shannon: Yeah. To some extent. Yeah.

Jeff: I’m trapped. I’m trapped in a myth and things are swirling around and the rules, are like myth rules and they don’t make sense. It’s like being in a dream a little bit.

Shannon: Yeah. It’s so interesting that you say that. Okay. You probably don’t know it, but you said something really interesting because that is what Gotama said. Our lives are like, if we are untrained, it’s like we’re sleepwalking.  So the goal of this whole practice is to wake up from this dream that you’re talking about.

Jeff: Interesting. Very wise.

Shannon: He’s a very wise person.

Jeff: No, I’m very wise.

Shannon: You’re a very wise person also.

Jeff: I mean, you know, this Gotama guy as well, but he’s long in the past, whereas I am here in front of you right now.

Shannon: Yes. You’re very wise.

Jeff: Now we’re working together. Yeah. Let’s talk more about this, so today we’re going to talk about understanding the mind and are you going to, we’re going to do the whole mind today. This is the last podcast we’re going to need?

Shannon: [00:06:00] Ooh man, wouldn’t that be great?

Jeff: Are we going to, what are we going to do?

Shannon: Well, I thought we might roll into material from the talk. As we mentioned, this is the third in a series of six talks by John Peacock, “Buddhism Before the Theravada”; there’ll be a link in the show notes to the talk and a transcript. All that good stuff. And I highly recommend to listeners to go and listen to the talk. It’s two hours ; we will not be covering most of the material that he talks about. This entire series is just incredible. So please do go have a listen.

Brief cliff notes of the talk: Peacock does, happily, talk about more translations that he considers to be flawed. and what we said last time is that rather than go through those per episode, we’ll take a separate episode at the end and talk about them all at once, which will be a great joy to me.

Jeff: It’s going to be, it’s going to be a test of endurance. I think, because I imagine by the time we get there, we’ll have quite a few translations [00:07:00] collected.

Shannon: For our listeners, Peacock talks about the five khandas or aggregates. Jeff, don’t worry about what that is. Peacock gives his opinion on jhanas, which is that deep meditative state that I talked to you about. And what’s interesting is that Peacock says he’s not really into those, which I thought was cool because I remember now having listened to his talk and being like, “Oh yeah, the jhanas are not cool.”

And then I got into the jhanas and my default mode network shut down. And I was like, this is so cool. So it’s interesting to have, heard from people like Peacock and Batchelor that  this isn’t, that big of a thing. And then to have experienced it and be like, for me, actually, yes, it’s a thing.

Um,why, Why though? Why is that interesting?

I say it’s interesting because it feels to me that I am developing my own opinions and position in my understanding of the Dharma. When I can hear something from [00:08:00] my teachers and say, okay, so that’s how it is for you. It’s quite different for me. And be excited and happy about that and not terrified or sad or anything. Does that make sense?

Jeff: Yeah. You’re developing your own perspective.

Shannon: Yeah. Yeah. That feels really good.

Jeff: Yeah, you’re synthesizing, views from here and there a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Put it together into a new kind of salad. Mix it around.

Shannon: What else did he talk about? Then he talked about the thing we’re going to cover today, which the Pali word… pardon my Pali, is Tilakkhana or or Tilakkhana. Or Tilakkhana… I think is  it’s the closest,

Jeff: Your accent work is very nice.

Shannon: It’s just, there’s so much work to do.

Jeff: Well it’s a process. It’s a process we’re starting.

Shannon: So the marks of existence, or the three characteristics, are the way that this thing is translated.

And before we jump into that, I wanted to frame the [00:09:00] conversation and readdress something that we talked about offline.  We’ve talked about the fact that the point of this podcast is not to teach you Buddhism. You Jeff Buddhism or anybody.

Jeff: Listeners. If that’s what you think you’re getting again,  write in.

Shannon: So my goal is not to teach you Buddhism. My goal…

Jeff: My goal is not to learn Buddhism. So we’re, we’re on the same page.

Shannon: Great. We’re on the same page. My goal is to share what I’m learning, why it matters  particularly in the light of understanding how our minds work in order to move towards human flourishing. And I found this quite challenging because if you were a practitioner, I would say, let’s talk about the Tilakkhana and you would say, yeah, and we’d run through some definitions and we’d regurgitate what we’ve heard people say. Maybe we’d debate the merits of various scholarly positions and it would be fun and very easy. And we would bring nothing new to the conversation whatsoever.

Jeff: We’d have a [00:10:00] great time,

Shannon: But instead, the thing that I want to do is talk about, here’s another pillar of Buddhism,

Jeff: It’s a well-supported supported plinth up there.

Shannon: But whatever Buddhism let’s look at your experience, let’s look at my experience and see if these claims that were made 2,500 years ago, do they still make sense in our experience today? And if so, how can we use that information in our lives? And if not, what do we learn from the exploration? So that’s how I’d like to approach this section. And in fact, this entire podcast.

Jeff: Great. Sounds fine. That’s what I signed up for.

Tilakkhana

Shannon:    So Tilakkhana,Tilakkhana,

Jeff: I like how your accent is getting bolder.

Shannon: Oh man. Oh, so frightening. So this word is translated.

Jeff: We’ll do a super cut later on of all your different accents. That come together and we’ll see the progression as you become a real, [00:11:00] real authentic speaker.

Shannon: So the word is translated a few different ways. Three marks of existence, three characteristics of existence. I think the translation “marks of existence” saying that there are characteristics that summarize what it is like to exist. I think that’s too broad a claim. I think

Jeff: It does seem almost useless. There are things, period.

Shannon: They have characteristics period.

I think a better translation is something like, “three characteristics of human experience”.

As a human our experience has these three characteristics. And I think that making a broader claim than that, saying that all of existence is like that, leans a little too far towards metaphysical,  absolute kind of thinking.

Jeff: Let’s have a look at these, um,these characteristics see how they feel.

Shannon: Okay, cool. So we’ve [00:12:00] got the three characteristics I will list  them, along with my translations. And then we’ll jump in one by one. First. The first characteristic is that everything in our experience is changing.

Jeff: Everything in our experience is changing.

Shannon: The second is negativity bias. For those practitioners who are listening, that’s my translation of dukkha And I’ll talk about why I’ve chosen that translation. 

And the third characteristic

Jeff: Everything is getting worse. If we put those two together, I think we can get it down

Shannon: to two characteristics.

We think that everything is getting worse.

Jeff: Yeah. Okay.

Shannon: And the third characteristic is that there’s no fixed essence to anything. Which kind of…

How is

Jeff: How is that different than the first one?

Shannon: Yeah, exactly. because they talk about the self and it’s a lot easier to say like,Oh, everything is changing except me.

Jeff: Oh, I. I, the  constant, am moving through the world, unaffected by the chaos around me. [00:13:00] Sure. You are. 

Anicca 

Shannon: So the first of the characteristics of human experience is that our experience is always changing. The Pali word for this is anicca.

Jeff: So does it mean our experience is always changing. That doesn’t really mean that the world is always changing or the ex external things, but that our experience is that is it like our senses, our sense of things is always changing?

Shannon: Yeah.  The way that it’s translated normally is the three marks of existence. Everything is changing and I say that’s a little too metaphysical, a little too broad.

What I can say is that everything in my experience is changing. Everything in the human experience is changing. So you just said that you said like, Oh, it’s not the world I’m talking about, my experience of the world is changing.

Jeff: I guess I’m not sure what to do with that, with that thing. Because we know from the second law of thermodynamics, which is that things tend towards entropy. Things tend to decay.  things are moving from order to disorder. and so that means that as a whole, anyway, the universe is changing always. [00:14:00] It doesn’t feel like this addresses, the second line, it’s speaking more about. mental States and perceptions and things like that.

Shannon: Certainly the guy who originally came up with the idea didn’t know about the second law of thermodynamics, but those of us who buy into this three characteristics, do say, the science backs it up. The science says everything is changing. The problem is,is that we don’t live from that place.

We as humans live as if things are permanent, We live as if the house, we,

Jeff: This is a myth, right?

Shannon: Exactly. We live as if the house that we buy will always be in the condition. It was when we bought it,

Jeff: It’ll probably get better,

Shannon: It’ll probably get better. We live as if the person that we  dedicate our lives to. Will not change will not grow old, will not grow sick will not die. And when they do…

Jeff: Will not start a podcast.

Shannon: Will not start a

podcast.

[00:15:00] Jeff: Some changes are great. More Podcasts. 

Shannon:      So that is it’s all of that. It’s both the science of everything is changing and it is our experience is of change, but we forget. So it’s a reminder.

Jeff: Except for the negative things. We remember those that’s I’m skipping ahead a little bit here.

Shannon: Well, no. We,we forget that the negative things will change. It’s why negative things can affect us so badly.

Jeff: I was trying for a negativity bias joke,

Shannon: Okay. You failed

Jeff: Yeah,

Shannon: That’s probably not nice to say.

Jeff: Well it’s negative.

Shannon: All right. So I’m on point?

  I actually covered this in a series in Buddha bites, which was fun. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

And in that series, I broke up the concept of change into a couple of different episodes to cover different aspects. The first was raw physical experience. So right now your sense of sight, if you look at something. [00:16:00] Your head moves just a tiny little bit, As you’re sitting here and as you’re breathing your head and your eyes are moving just a little bit. So your raw experience is always changing.

  With other senses it’s the same. With sound, right? the sound of my voice, though, it may seem as though it is going on forever. There are actually are pauses between the phonemes. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to differentiate them.

Jeff: It’s not just a constant  tone.

Shannon: Right. So the soundscape is constantly changing. Same with touch. Even if you’re lying very still in bed, as you breathe, you’re going to feel the bed touching you in different ways. the inside feelings of breathing, there’s that rhythmic feeling of breathing it’s always changing. And so our raw data that we’re receiving is constantly changing.

Jeff: That makes sense. Yeah.

Shannon: Then the second aspect is that things outside our direct raw experience are also changing, but we as humans, aren’t good at [00:17:00] noticing this because of that change blindness phenomenon, that video that I showed you. Where we watched, over the course of 60 seconds, the entire room shifted.

Jeff: Oh, yeah, it’s a video it’s shot on a tripod and it’s, it’s a living room, there’s a couch and some cushions and a painting on the wall and a window. And, it’s just, it’s just a camera looking at this… there’s no people,  there’s nothing moving in there, but slowly over the course of, I don’t know, maybe one minute,

Shannon: Yeah, it was under 60 seconds.

Jeff: They do a, like a selective, I don’t know, a crossfade or something from one pillow to completely different pillow on the couch. It’s a different size, a different color. It’s not like they just changed the color. It’s completely different. The same with the window.

Shannon: The lights on the Christmas tree.

Jeff: Exactly, it doesn’t all happen at the same time for each element of the room. Each element changes at a slightly different time. So it’s not like fading from one picture to another picture. It’s it must take a lot of work to do, but I didn’t notice it. And did you notice it the first time you saw

Shannon: it?

No. No.  [00:18:00] The first time I saw it, it I didn’t see any of it. You had noticed a couple of changes in this particular video,

Jeff: I noticed, a weird feeling.

Shannon: Yeah.

Jeff: I noticed something weird is happening, but I couldn’t have told you, ah, they’ve changed the pillow. I couldn’t have said that.

Shannon: and you might not have, if I hadn’t said, Hey, here’s a video. I want you to watch.  You might not have even,

Jeff: I might’ve just noticed that it’s the world’s boringest video and gone on to the next one.

Shannon: We’ll put a link in the show notes to this video. And I hope,I hope that people get to go and watch it, but this phenomenon of change blindness,  humans are not good at noticing. this was under 60 seconds. It was maybe 45 seconds of shift. And we aren’t able to notice that because we have brains that are designed to notice lions running at us in the grass.

Jeff: That’s why, many animals, when they feel threatened, they just start moving.

Right.

Shannon: So all this to say that things outside of our experience are changing. But we don’t notice it.

And then we forget, in the podcast, I talked about getting a shiny red [00:19:00] bicycle, and we get it and we imagine that it’s going to be this way forever. It’s always going to be shiny and beautiful, and it’s always going to give us this rush of pleasure and it will never change, but it does change. It gets dirty and rusty and the tires go bald and it starts to please us less over time, we are less delighted by it.  We have that hedonic treadmill type effect.

And we forget that   when we are charmed by objects in the world, it’s going to be amazing forever because we forget that things change.

    And then the third aspect of change, is that people change? we’ve addressed that, but on the most basic level, we are conceived as two cells and then those cells multiply and differentiate and we become babies and then we grow up and then we grow old.

You know, we are constantly changing from a psychological standpoint. Our emotions can change like that. We can go from being perfectly contented to getting an email and flying into a rage and then pull [00:20:00] up our Instagram feed and look at cute puppies and be joyous in the space of 90 seconds.

And so our personality is constantly changing. What we know is changing. We’re learning, we’re forgetting things. All of these aspects of what it’s like to be human are changing. There’s nothing that we can point out and say, this thing has never changed.  And as you mentioned,what do I do with that?

That knowledge in and of itself may not be as helpful as realizing that we forget and that that forgetting causes problems.

Jeff: We forget that things are changing.

Yeah. We forget that things are changing and we forget that things are going to change that they’re going to continue to change

Jeff: We have this myth, the myth of the persistent self that, that, yeah. That we do operate under.

Shannon: And not just ourselves, right.Nations. 

Jeff: We are the nation.

Shannon: Yeah, the nation is like this. If it changes that’s bad or it shouldn’t change;  looking back at history, there has not been a nation that has not undergone change.

Jeff: Except for periods. [00:21:00] when, when the mythology shifts. Remember the, the romanticized version of going to the moon, what are we doing? We’re changing, we’re improving. So there are times of, stasis, and the mythology shifts  between the times of stasis and. And, growth or change celebrating, one, one or the other of those things.

Shannon:  My understanding of that stage when America was going into space, was that the myth, the belief then was we are people who do this. We are people who behave in this way and we will always, Americans will always be like this. Although,

Jeff: That seems like a reasonable interpretation.

Shannon:  Yeah, although the, it was about, Hey, we are people who are changing. It was, we are people who change things and we, that is what it’s like to be an American.

Jeff: See, that’s what we’re doing today. Who knows what it’ll be tomorrow.

Shannon: Yeah, but we will always be working to change, working, [00:22:00] to get into the stars. So I think there was a sense of: that is who we, as a nation, are. Not, we are in a state that we will move through, but this is who we are as a nation.

I think there was a myth there.     I wish it had been true.

Jeff: Things might change again.

Shannon: Oh, they most certainly will, my friend. 

Dukkha

 Moving onto the second characteristic, which…

Jeff: Negativity bias

Shannon: Yes. Negativity bias. And the word again in Pali,

Jeff: Dukkha.

Shannon: It’s Paaaali. Sorry, the A is long. Pali.

Jeff: Oh yeah your accent work is getting really, yep.

Shannon: I’m working on it  I’m just going to be insufferabile to anybody I’m at that stage of insufferability where…

Jeff: Like somebody first learns a little bit of Spanish or a little bit of French they just can’t stop.

Shannon: Or Latin, when you’re in a science class and you start to learn Latin and then you start correcting each other. What? Latin is as much of a dead language as Pali. Nobody gets to correct anybody.

Jeff: The word sophomore is really in top form.

Shannon: Yeah I [00:23:00] would say that is where my understanding is right now It’s pretty sophomoric.  Don’t tell my students that. Anyway dukkha. Yes.

Jeff: Here we go. 

Shannon: Peacock says, in the very beginning of his talk, he says that he hopes to be controversial.

Jeff: Peacock hopes to be controversial. And this really drew you in.

Shannon: Yeah. Yeah, it really drew me in and I’d like to say here that I’m not hoping to be controversial, but I do think  there are people who will take issue with this particular translation.

In fact,  there’s a well-known teacher. His name is Leigh Brasington. He’s a dude who’s really into the jhanas that deep concentrative, meditative state that I’ve talked about. And he and I were talking about it and he was like, negativity bias is okay, but I wouldn’t use it. And I was like, okaywe have a difference of opinion there.

Jeff: Are there ever debates amongst the various, Dharma teachers where they square off and they, uhstand up there with two podiums and…

Shannon: Certainly that’s a huge part of certain traditions, is debating. In the Zen tradition, It’s a big deal.  [00:24:00]  The Theravadan tradition actually came from a tradition of debate tradition and that was a huge part of their tradition.  And I believe in the Tibetan tradition as well, that debate is a huge part. In the West I would say not as much of that. When I was at Zen mountain monastery there was some debate   that they staged.  But it feels the confrontational nature of those debates hasn’t arisen quite as much in the West I’d say.

Jeff: Can we look forward to an interview where Mr. Brasington joins you on the podcast and you, you guys hash it out over this, translation?

Shannon: No. Because I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in that .  Let Sam Harris handle that  kind of stuff.

Jeff:  Somebody is on the case you can do what you’re doing.

Shannon: Yes exactly. Let’s leave Sam Harris to be the snarky confrontational type. And I’d like to be the you know let’s find a happy  middle ground.

Jeff: Here we go. So though, there is some debate with this translation of dukkha, let’s talk about the interpretation that you have though, and let’s delve into it a little bit.

Shannon: Thank you.

Jeff: Am I hosting a little bit too much here?

Shannon: No. It’s beautiful I really [00:25:00] appreciate that. I mentioned earlier    thatthe standard translation is suffering and many scholars think that this translation misses the point. Peacock says that he wants to actually naturalize the word  dukkha because suffering is an insufficient translation. He wants to naturalize this word.

I think in the second episode, we briefly touched on dukkha and you had asked me what it meant and what I did, because I wasn’t prepared to talk about it was I parotted what Peacock and Batchelor say about it. I had said, Oh, it’s a spectrum term. And it means anything unpleasant; it can go anywhere from being a little too cold, to intense tragedy, suffering. And it was interesting because  while I was editing the audio for that podcast I was really disappointed with myself about what I said to you.

Jeff: Because you punted a bit?

Shannon: Yeah because it’ s not how I think the term should be translated actually.

Jeff: Because in a previous conversation, a casual conversation you had shared with me, the [00:26:00] idea that dukkha was, negativity bias. And I don’t think we’d done it on the podcast before I found it really appealing though. I found it more useful  than suffering cause like, everything is suffering sad trombone. Do we have sad trombone on the soundboard here?

:sound effect:

 Yeah

Jeff: what do you do with that?

Jeff: But negativity bias is interesting. it’s something that we can say, ah, this is a characteristic of our perception.

Shannon:  Yeah, exactly. And

Jeff: And we can know if there is an objective reality, probably some debate on that point as well, but  if there is an objective reality, it’s  maybe a little better than we perceive it.

Shannon: Yeah.

Jeff: It seems like there’s some hope there.

Shannon: absolutely

Another aspect of why I like negativity bias is it takes some of the blame away for me personally Anyway um when I like Oh this is how my brain is wired [00:27:00] It’s no longer I’m a terrible person for feeling appreciate this beautiful day because  earlier and now I look outside I’m like it’s so like it’s so beautiful

so beautiful

Jeff: or I think a thing happened. I perceive it to be negative. And that’s just how the brain brain we don’t have

Shannon: to lay blame. It’s no longer this original sin,

Shannon:  Do you think for listeners to kind of talk about what bias what negativity bias is briefly negativity bias is

Jeff: Yeah. let’s do a segment on that We are listeners. We don’t have theme music ready for this one. Sad trombone I think is all we’re going there’s the episode

Shannon: well there’s the ukulele in between sections So there is there’s always a ukulele

Shannon: So negativity bias. I know you’ve been dying to find out negativity bias is the phenomenon that humans are more sensitive and [00:28:00] responsive to unpleasant stimuli, whether physical sensations or mental events than we are to pleasant stimuli. And if you think about it, this makes super sense.  you and I, Jeff are sitting here in this room, fairly comfortable, fairly well fed.

Jeff: Well rested,

Shannon: Both of us have had nice naps today naps so we’re mostly pretty comfortable right now. Now, if I were to lean over and poke the back of your hand with a pin. 99.9% of you would still be fine. Right. But you wouldn’t notice that anymore. The thing you would notice was that you were being stabbed in the back of the hand with a pin.

Jeff: so it seems like negativity bias might encompass two things it might encompass, at present. at a certain moment, we have a number of stimuli that are coming in, right? A pleasant temperature, a comfortable chair, good company

Jeff: and so the one we focus on [00:29:00] is let’s make that pain go away. or maybe that’s going too far But when we focus on is the pain perhaps for the reason of getting it to go away.

But then also might it also be a fair characterization of negativity bias to say that through the course of the day, many events will happen. And some we positive, 50 will be positive and 50 would be negative, but at the end of the day, maybe more, maybe 99 will be positive, but one will be negative.

Might be a more parallel example to the pinprick. At the end of the day when we reflect back. what was today like? there’s one negative thing happened. we’ll maybe dominate our perception of the day. Are both of those fair?

Shannon: I think so.

Jeff: Are there others?

Shannon: No I think those are the two main ones. This idea of, in the moment, especially physical things will distract us. And also that mental events. the way I often talk about the mental aspect is we have a house that keeps the rain off. It keeps the cold out. We have hot and [00:30:00] cold running water. we have things that a thousand years ago people would have said, if we could just have these things, everything would be fine.

That’s not even fair. There are people  alive today who probably say, man, you know what I would really love is water without worm eggs in it  so we’ve got all this amazing stuff. We’ve got technology that mostly works. We’ve got sad trombone.

But one thing happens, the battery is starting to go on my iPhone… First world problems are a beautiful example of negativity bias.

From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, negativity bias makes a ton of sense. Right. You had mentioned,  if I’m sitting here and everything’s fine, but something stabs me in the hand, that’s where my attention should go.

Jeff: if a bug is biting me for something larger is biting me.

Shannon: yeah. The thing you want when you’re being chased by a lion is not Oh, look at

Jeff: look at the sunset. All the flowers smell great. Chomp. [00:31:00] Yeah. Nothing but running.

Jeff: We’ll come back to look at the flowers later. Running.

Jeff: Yeah. You want to see, not only if a thing is biting you, but if it looks like a bite might be coming up,

Shannon: Yeah. And you’re going to live longer if you think a bite is coming. if you’re anxious, if you are hyper-aware,

Jeff: The penalty for what is that? It’s called a, a false positive.

Shannon: Yes. if the penalty for a false positive is low,

Jeff: we look at the world and we say, ah, I’ll bite is coming, but we’re incorrect about that low penalty.

Shannon: Yes. But if we look at the world and say no bite, and we get bit and we die

Jeff: That’s a false negative

Shannon:  yeah. So the penalty for false positives is low. Penalty for false positives is high.

Jeff: And that leads us to imagine bites when there are no bites.

Shannon: It leads us to be beings who are anxious. if you watch birds in the park, they’ll come down. They’ll land, they’ll pick around a little bit, but then they’ll stop [00:32:00] and look around and they’ll go backpacking, they’ll stop. And they’ll look around.

Jeff: And if a person who is a well intentioned for example, and is walking slowly comes towards them. They’ll often go out of the way they’ll move away. just cause you never know.

Shannon: Cause you never know. yeah.

Jeff: Good example of a thing that, it doesn’t serve us well. Previously it did in our evolution and at the lower levels of the Maslow’s pyramid. But now that, in cases where those lower level needs are met, imagining, getting bitten by things in less useful and oftentimes, it’s much more useful to err pretty hard on the other side.

Shannon: Yes. Yeah, I think so, too. And if it’s appropriate to say here, but I think that’s a big part of what this training is. I think the training that Gotama. At least the part that I’m really focusing on is this ability to recognize ah, negativity bias. But that aside,

Jeff: Yeah.

Shannon: Yeah.  let our awareness be a little more balanced.

One place, we [00:33:00] particularly do this when we’re doing body scans, this, pay attention to your toes, pay attention to your feet, pay attention to your legs will sometimes talk about how  you might have an itch while you are sitting in meditation and your whole body and mind is like deal with this. And what we are learning to do is to hold that in a greater context. Yes, there’s an itch on my face, but the rest of my body feels pretty comfortable right now. And being able to recognize what a small part of our entire experience that discomfort is,

Jeff: and the itch is not a, it’s not a threat to you. Yes, it will itch, but your nose will not. Drop off of your face.

 Shannon: I’m wondering about one other thing I thought to say here… so we’re talking about the three characteristics of human experience. And again, in my opinion, this should actually be survival bias, [00:34:00] not just negativity bias. Because something that

Jeff: Is it a translation issue or a bigger,

Shannon: it’s a bigger, it’s a bigger thing. When Gotama was practicing, he didn’t know about  evolution. So I’m not saying what he said was wrong, but when I look at human experience, knowing what I do about brain function, I think it would be more correct to say we have survival bias.

So many of our activities are not just negativity bias, not just we notice the bad stuff, but we are trying to, improve our status, in our community, in order to get our genes into the next generation, we have all these weird behaviors.  my understanding of how our brains work suggests that survival bias is actually a better way to talk and think about. Our experience as humans.

However, for the Dharma community that feels like too big of a step. I don’t know that it would be skillful for me to push the [00:35:00] agenda of letting go of negativity bias or Duca or suffering altogether and saying, Nope, put that aside. the bigger issue here is survival bias.

I’m actually torn about this because on the one hand, that’s what I think it should be.

And the other hand I want to, you know, make some concessions to the community

Jeff: You want to have friends.

Shannon: I like people.

Jeff: it’s good for your survival to have friends.

Shannon: See that. Okay. Perfect. For example, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. we worry about having friends because of survival bias.

Jeff: Yeah. When something wants to bite us, our friends can help us.

Shannon: With any luck? I don’t know. Yeah. Do you have anything to say about that? I that’s all I have to say about it.

 Jeff: the nice thing about suffering and negativity bias as translations of dukkha is that they’re quite direct in their meaning. you can easily perceive what the thing is and you can directly apply [00:36:00] the thing.

Shannon: Yep.

Jeff: Whereas survival bias , requires a few more steps, for example, Yeah, it’s survival bias, but it’s for surviving at a previous time in the evolution. And we’ve evolved past that. And so now it’s these first world problems that we’re trying to survive and I have a bias doesn’t help us with that. So it’s not helping us to survive right anymore.

Whereas negativity bias where we’re still seeing this negativity. Yeah, whatever our problems are, we’re still latching onto those. So  for me, I guess at my understanding that I have today, I find negativity bias of three translations, suffering, negativity, bias, and survival bias.

I find that negativity bias is the most useful one for me.

Shannon: I agree with you. particularly in that many people come to the teachings of Gautama or Buddhism. Or any religion, frankly, because they have, because something’s wrong. in [00:37:00] MBSR classes the people room, everything is going fine. Often don’t stick around. It’s the people who have this, something isn’t right. Something. I want something different. Something needs to change that is often for religions of all Stripe, where you get folks in.

Jeff: that’s their survival bias, right? Things are not great. Let’s fix those change something. Let’s, let’s make some moves,

Shannon: But it is that negativity aspect that Duka that suffering that has brought them. It’s not their joy and a lot of cases that brings them in the door.

Jeff: Things are going fine, then keep it the same.

Shannon: Yeah, exactly. yeah. So that’s an interesting point. Of course. I also have the, you know,but I don’t think that’s the thing. so yeah,    I’m a little torn, but I do agree with you that from a practical standpoint, negativity bias may be the thing that’s most useful to talk about.

Jeff: Fair enough. now the options are on the table and let’s,  use them as their partner.

Anatta

Shannon: Ready for the third one.

Okay. So the third one,

Jeff: This is the one that’s confusing to me.

Shannon: I don’t think it will [00:38:00] be once we talk about it a little bit, I think it will be quite clear. I hope it will be quite clear. So the third one is the poly word is on a TA. It’s often translated as not self. Some people say no self peacock says it can also be no fixed self. But not no self. We don’t want no self. It’s. Not that you don’t have a self As you had mentioned, it’s that tying back into the first aspect that there’s nothing essential. There’s no fixed essential ness. I’m wondering how much about peacocks talk? To bring up. he was talking about, Brockman, ism and Hinduism and the Upanishads and I

Shannon: And again, as we talked about earlier, it’s not about teaching you Buddhism. So I think that part can be put aside.

It may be more interesting to talk about. How Western philosophy handles this issue?  David Hume, the [00:39:00] Scottish philosopher,  he said for my part, I’m quoting for my part. When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other of heat or cold light, or shade, love, or hatred, pain, or pleasure. So he’s saying, when I start to pay attention to myself, I notice a perception.

Then he says, I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and I can never observe anything, but the perception  the way that Gautama talks about this idea of not self ,  have you ever had a banana tree?

Jeff: A banana tree?

Shannon: that has bananas on it.

Jeff: I’ve seen them but never grown one myself.

Shannon: If you chop down a maple, you’ve got this  core, this Heartwood in the center of the wood, a banana tree is basically just a bunch of leaves. And if you peel all the leaves away,  it’s leaves all the way [00:40:00] down. There’s no Heartwood  And so Gotama talks about the self like this, he says, it’s just. It’s like a banana tree

Jeff: There’s not like a seed or a core,

Shannon: right. There’s nothing, there’s just layers and layers. And that’s what he talks about. When he’s talking about this on a taco concept, he says there’s no fixed essence to a person or frankly, to anything, which we can talk about the science about that in a minute. if we look at who I was, when I was born, I was, that was one way. And then I changed and I changed and now I’m this way and I’m going to keep changing and I’m going to be different later, but there’s no fixed essence that I can say, Shannon, is this, does that make sense?

Jeff: Things are trajectories through time.

Shannon: Yeah.

Jeff: Patterns.

collections of energy. There’s not a,  pause button.

Yeah.

Shannon: Do you remember the other day  I said, [00:41:00] nouns are verbs moving very slowly. this is the concept that I was talking about this idea that we have this idea of nouns, this computer

Jeff: this banana. 

Shannon: but what is it banana? is a banana a tree when it’s hanging on the tree.  at what point does it become a banana? Is it a banana when it’s a flower that has been pollinated?   And then after I eat it, is it still a banana or is it a Shannon?

Jeff: Yeah, it’s interesting.

  Shannon: One thing that you had said in the beginning was, isn’t no fixed self. isn’t that obvious given everything is changing and in line with what you had said about dukkha actually. It’s very practical to have a way of working with negativity bias, to have a way of working with suffering.

I think the reason that this is highlighted separately is that it’s very helpful to have a way to think about the self, because it’s so easy to say everything’s changing

Jeff: Except me.

Shannon: Yeah. And so I think that’s [00:42:00] why it’s highlighted as its own specific example of everything changing. That’s my take on it.

Jeff: That seems reasonable.

Shannon:  Peacock says something really interesting that I hadn’t thought about before he says, what is this not self? And then he says, that’s the good news

Jeff: Wait a minute, what is this not self?

Shannon: That’s anatta. that’s not fixed self.

Shannon:  what is this not self? And he says, that’s the good news, because it means that whatever is bad and seemingly intractable in your life or your personality, that too is impermanent that can change. So whatever it is,

Jeff: it can change. That’s hopeful.

Shannon: Yeah. there’s hope in that. 

One of the characters in the discourses, the suttas is a guy who killed, I don’t know. He had likea thousand fingers that he wore in a necklace around his neck.  he killed a [00:43:00] lot of people and he took their fingers for each person that he killed. And he ended up turning into a Bhikkhu. He ended up becoming a follower of Gotama and people were like,  how could that be? He did all this stuff and Gotama said because there’s no fixed self that’s gone. He’s not doing that anymore. Now  He’s a Bikkhu.

Jeff: There was a book about how to be a writer. Stephen King has caught one, and it’s a point that they make to every day choose to be a writer sit down. Yeah.

Shannon: And not only choose what you want to be, but you can choose what you don’t want to be.  there’s a lot of changes that are going on in my life as I’m starting to explore, the Dharma we talked about in the last episode, in the ethics about how my reaction to the world is changing and how I decide this is the type of behavior that I want to exhibit. And yeah, it can change. Thank goodness. Imagine if we were all still five.

Jeff: but at the [00:44:00] same time, the brain science tells us that the patterns are powerful. Creating habits is powerful and, it takes some time to make those changes. maybe they are like, whirlpools in a stream. You can see them, behind rocks and once they form they can be a stable pattern. It can be perturbed if you drop a big enough rock or leaf or, something in there that  can be perturbed. Yeah. But they also are stable to small perturbations, the flow moving around. and so it gives us the idea that we can make changes. It’s not a trivial thing to do always. Our survival, bias is, is sometimes working for us, sometimes working against, the change that we might want to make

Shannon: Something else that peacock says in this talk is we’re going to change

anyway,

Jeff: we are changing.

Shannon: we are changing all the time and we’re going to change in the future. So why not make a decision about what direction that’s going in?

Jeff: Yeah. thanks for explaining these. I get them

Shannon: Yeah. Yeah.

 One [00:45:00] more thing that recently came up, live in a conversation that I was having with somebody else. I’m part of a Bodhi college community group.  somehow we got on the topic of anatta in a conversation in a breakout group, me and another practitioner. We were talking about how so much of Gotama’s teaching is really practical and useful. It’s not abstract, much of his teaching was to plane people, to peasants, to farmers. And so he  taught on this really basic level and it’s become Abstracted.

Jeff: Sure. the intellectuals got ahold of

Shannon: Sure. Yeah, the intellectuals got a hold of it. And this person was saying  they were having trouble understanding this concept of  not self and having trouble knowing what to do about it. And this may not be interesting for you, Jeff, but I wanted to bring it up because This has been helpful for me. And it may be helpful to listeners when Gotama in the discourses, in the suttas talks about [00:46:00] anatta he often uses a particular phrase. He says, this is not me. This is not mine. This I am not. So whenever we think,

Jeff: Can you repeat that?

Shannon: Yeah. this is not me. This is not mine. This I am not.

Jeff: what might he be referring to?

Shannon: Maybe a psychological condition, I am sad. I am not always sad. This is not me. The sadness is not me. I’m not sad all the way down. It’s not mine. I don’t own sadness. Sadness is just a thing that’s happening. and this sadness is not myself. Again, it’s not the core of who I am.

 Or an identity. I used to identify as being a helicopter pilot, but that was not the core of who I am. That was not a fixed essence. I wasn’t always a helicopter pilot. Sometimes I was a student.

Jeff: Some people like this though. Some people like this thing, some people are attempted to once a helicopter pilot, I was a helicopter pilot.

Shannon: And it’s really

[00:47:00] annoying.

Jeff: There’s some safety there. I think is maybe the reason that they, they feel comfortable there. They feel safe. It’s their survival bias. Maybe that’s kicking in it.  they have a sense. It gives them maybe an elevated social position.

Shannon: absolutely. Absolutely. but is it true after you stopped flying helicopters? Are you a helicopter pilot anymore? I would argue, I would say there’s some room for argument that you’re not anymore.

Jeff: after you stop writing. Are you a writer? Yeah.

Shannon:  we can really cling to these identities, I am a Democrat, I am a Republican, but this  ability to say, this is not me. This is not mine. This I am not. and using that triple phrase for those of us who are really into using phrases of Gotama…

Jeff: will we expect to find the t-shirt on the, downward PhD? Webstore

Shannon: that’s a brilliant idea

Jeff: write in listeners. I am not, this t-shirt, this t-shirt is not me.

What’s the other one. This

Shannon: is not myself. Yeah.

[00:48:00] I have found this little triple phrase to be very helpful, especially when I’m doing a thing that I don’t like about myself when I’m feeling a particular way, maybe I’m ruminating about something and I can’t seem to let it go. It has been very helpful. So I’m bringing that up. Yeah. It’s a helpful little mantra to help me, let go. Of some of these attachments and identifications that don’t serve. So take what’s useful and leave the rest.

Jeff: we might have to print the t-shirt upside down. So you could look down and then read it

Shannon: or backwards. So you could look at a mirror,

Jeff: in a mirror.

Shannon: All right.   

in summary. Gotama said that there were three characteristics of human existence. First that everything in our experience changes that our experience is of impermanence.  second, that our experience has permeated by negativity bias. And third that there is no essential nature of ourselves or of anyone or anything else

Jeff: there. You have it, ladies and gentlemen.

Shannon: there. You have it. Yeah, Is there [00:49:00] anything else that this brings up for  you, anything in your experience?

Jeff: this seems particularly useful to me well, in my life, these are things that, are useful to me at this point in time in particular because, I’m contemplating a job change.

A company I was speaking with, about employment there. It was interesting  because they had envisioned that I might occupy a different role at that company than I had thought I would envision. I up to this point have identified myself as engineer, engineers traditionally do not speak to other people. They’re locked. They’re locked in the basement somewhere. the stereotype is not of skillful communication. And so this company wants me to do quite a bit of communication. speaking with customers, determining what they want, formulating that in a way that the engineering team can create the thing that’s [00:50:00] needed. communication between many groups  going in a few directions, I might be doing things like making a podcast. For example, it’s good that you’ve blazed the trail there. I may be making some videos about this. we’ll see. We’ll see and so this is a thing that I have in fact been doing. Am I in my current position  but it was very interesting to think about, the idea of, ah, my identity has been this other thing

Shannon: Yeah. The identity has been engineer and now maybe communications

Jeff: or,or just the idea of. let’s not identify too strongly with any one thing. Let’s be,let’s be a person who moves through the world doing interesting things and there’ll be called different things at different times. So that’s an interesting thing. It just happened the other day. Uh, so I’m, I’m getting my head around it. And so these ideas, really land at a time when they’re very directly useful.

Shannon: Awesome. [00:51:00] That makes me very happy. The Dharma is everywhere.

Jeff: Yeah. And it’s useful for everyday problems like this everyday experiences.

Shannon: exactly. That is that part. Oh, man, that part is so important to me.  every day experiences. Yeah. Oh, rad.  Anything else?

Jeff: Thanks.

Shannon: So listeners, if you’d like to get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

You can email us hello at dharmaphd.com. There’ll be a website link in the show notes where you can get the transcript of, and links to, John Peacock’s two hour amazing talk that you should totally go and listen to. There will also be a transcript of this episode, and I’ll also include a link to Maslow’s hierarchy that we’ve talked about. And this link will include the final sixth apex.

Shannon: What else did we talk about?

Jeff: [00:52:00]listeners, if you want any of these key phrases on a t-shirt, don’t hesitate to write in

Shannon: I have really enjoyed this talk and I’m super glad that you find something helpful here. That’s the thing I really care about is offering ideas and ways to think about how to live a life of human flourishing.

Jeff: It’d be interesting to hear from listeners too.

if maybe if they’re comfortable sharing their stories with other people or. Or just with us privately, it’d be interesting to hear how listeners are able to apply these ideas in their own lives, in the same way that I was able to and something that happened just the other day.

Shannon: Yeah. thank you, Jeff, for being my cohost.

Thank you to our listeners.

May you be well.

Outtakes

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