Discourse Scholarship

Dharma PhD (the podcast) Episode 5

Dharma PhD podcast Episode 5, 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 4”. We talk about how, in Buddhist traditions (and maybe our own psychological traditions?) human experience is playing out on a backdrop of misunderstanding how our minds work (avijjā) and that much of our waking life is actually spent executing habits (sankhāra).

A friend of mine said they tried listening to one of Peacock’s talks and found it difficult to parse. I get that. Here’s a mindmap I built of the talk while preparing for the episode:

This is why we focus on just a teensy fraction; Peacock’s knowledge is vaaaaast and his talks are broaaaaaad. I think for the our podcast a more narrow, more shallow approach is most appropriate. I see it as complimentary to, riffing on, what Peacock has done.

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!

Everything Is Included in Dhamma Practice (Even the Zombie Apocalypse) – EP9 Dharma PhD

Welcome to Dharma PhD! In this episode we discuss how even the most seemingly unskillful stuff (watching the HBO TV series "The Last of Us" can be approached as part of Dhamma practice. And no, this is not just an excuse to watch more Pedro Pascal.Transcript of the episode: you're interested, the Official HBO podcast with Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin: to get in touch? We'd love to hear from you! Email us at
  1. Everything Is Included in Dhamma Practice (Even the Zombie Apocalypse) – EP9
  2. What are we oriented towards? (MN26, Ariyapariyesana Sutta) – EP8
  3. John Peacock's "Buddhism Before the Theravada" Part 6 – EP7
  4. John Peacock's "Buddhism Before the Theravada" Part 5 (kind of) – EP6
  5. John Peacock's "Buddhism Before the Theravada" Part 4 – EP5

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 once again by my fabulous cohost, Jeff Street. Welcome Jeff.


It’s been awhile.

[00:00:16] Jeff: It’s been awhile.

[00:00:18]Shannon:  . Our last episode was 13 November.

[00:00:21] Really? Yeah. Okay.

So much has happened.

[00:00:24] Jeff: Yeah. Month and a half or so.

[00:00:26] Shannon: Yeah, you. We’re talking in the last episode about how you were thinking about accepting a new person.

[00:00:32] Jeff: And indeed I have big news listeners podcast will not be affected at all, but

[00:00:40] Shannon: and your,your new job is not in the Dharma.

[00:00:41] So you will still be the lay person. And I will still be the amateurish professional.

[00:00:46] Jeff: exactly. The casting woof

[00:00:48] Shannon: as before. Excellent.

[00:00:50]Jeff:  What have you been up to since we spoke last on the podcast,

[00:00:53] Shannon: it’s a big stuff in Dharma PhD, even though the podcast has been quiet, the bigger project, the [00:01:00] independent PhD project is going along very well.

[00:01:02] The other podcast, Buddha bites hit 5,000 downloads. Very excited about that. Yeah. And then I promptly ended season one. I ended on a high note that was really gratifying that people were interested in it. was invited to become a forum manager for  a Dharma community groups. That’s been challenging, but it’s a big role.

[00:01:26] Yeah. Maybe

[00:01:29] Jeff: we’ll see how big the community is. We’ll see if the growth numbers or anything like you’ve seen over on Buddha bites.

[00:01:35] Shannon: Big, not yet. but that’s okay.  it’s a great opportunity to work with this organization I’ve spoken about Bodie college whom I really admire and am thrilled to be doing anything with them at all.


[00:01:48]Jeff: What are we going to talk about on the podcast

[00:01:50] Shannon: today?

[00:01:50]       you won’t be surprised to learn. We’ll be talking about the fourth in a series of six talks by John peacock. The  series is titled Buddhism before the [00:02:00] Teravata.  I thought since it’s been awhile that we might recap we’ve Glen did on a few scenes.

[00:02:05] Okay. So

[00:02:06] Jeff: do a quick rundown before we start.

[00:02:08]Shannon: Yeah.

[00:02:08]So we had three themes    the first is that Gautama was not creating a religion, but rather a philosophy of human flourishing. Number two go Timo was a social critic. His teachings were deeply engaged with his culture and we should be deeply engaged with our culture. And three go to miss teachings were grounded in ethics.

[00:02:29] They were not metaphysical, but he was very interested in the practice of every day ness. Anything else that you think worth mentioning?

[00:02:39]Jeff: no those seem like the overarching themes.

[00:02:42]Shannon: So in this talk, John peacock introduces a concept in Pāli. The term is  Paticca Samuppada.

Good work. Thank you. Strong accent word. Oh man. Yeah.

A standard [00:03:00] translation of this is dependent origination.

[00:03:01] Jeff: And how do you feel about the standard translation?

[00:03:05] Shannon: I think it’s fine. What,

[00:03:08]Jeff:  I

[00:03:11]Shannon: anyway, we’re going to put dependent origination aside for now listeners, we will do an entire podcast dedicated to dependent origination, but it’s a 12 part list.

[00:03:22]Jeff: Oh man.

[00:03:23] I know. So it’s like lists with their list with bullet points.

[00:03:28]Shannon: it was an oral tradition

[00:03:29]Jeff: gather around you followers. I have today for you. Another list. Sharpen your,your um,  uniform reads and prepare your clay

[00:03:40] Shannon: tablets.

[00:03:41] They weren’t writing anything down, had a sharp in your minds

[00:03:44] Jeff: and

[00:03:44] Shannon: your ears.   

[00:03:47]So anyway, do they, we’re only going to talk about the first two parts of the 12 part list. The reason these first two parts are important is they’re considered to [00:04:00] be the backdrop on which the rest of human experience is playing out.

[00:04:05]Jeff:  So canvas.

[00:04:06]Shannon: Yeah. And those two parts, the backdrop are, first of all, that we misunderstand how our minds work. And second of all, we are bundles of habits.

[00:04:20]Jeff: I understand the cycle. I don’t think I understand the first one.

[00:04:24] Shannon: Yeah, he misunderstand.


[00:04:25] ah, gotcha.

[00:04:29] Jeff: I don’t think they understand, like I’m I’m not sitting here feeling like I’m missing, understanding how our mind works. I do understand better once you start speaking, I’ll say that But I,I don’t feel like I’m understanding.

[00:04:40]Shannon: exactly.

[00:04:41] Jeff: Because I feel like I’m a bundle of habits.

[00:04:43] Shannon: Okay.

[00:04:43] so let’s say the misunderstanding part. if you go to Wikipedia and look up cognitive biases

[00:04:49] Jeff: as a big list,

[00:04:50] Shannon: it’s like a hundred and something, right? Of course, we don’t feel like that. That would be weird if we felt as confused as we are as misunderstood because doing that yeah.

[00:05:00] [00:04:59] In the same way that when we look at a sensory stimulus, let’s say I look at an Apple   the experience I have is not my optic nerve has been excited. what I see is I see an object in, I see an object and. We have started to understand that process  by being able to do things  like repair, optic nerves of people that have been damaged since birth. And so now we understand when someone has had an optic nerve that’s been damaged since birth. They’ve been blind since birth  and the optic nerve is repaired. They don’t open their eyes and say, apples doctors clocks on the wall. Yeah. They close their eyes right away because there’s this incredible sensory stimulus and they have no idea how to parse it.

[00:05:40]Jeff: and as soon as they’re an adult, they can communicate.


[00:05:43] Jeff: What that process is like. Yeah.

[00:05:45] Interesting. Yeah. Wow. How it really be fascinating to sit next to someone who’s opening their eyes for the first time.

[00:05:54] Shannon: Does that make sense that we misunderstand because we’ve got these cognitive biases.


[00:06:00] [00:05:59] Jeff: Yeah.

[00:06:02] Shannon: So the thing I’d like to do in this podcast is talk about those two parts, the misunderstanding part and the habit part. All right. So the poly word, here we go for this first part.

[00:06:15]So the Pali word for this misunderstanding is . Okay. And it’s often translated as. Delusion or ignorance, but those feel pretty pejorative to me. peacock says he prefers the word confusion, but I still think saying I’m confused because like you said, my sense is not that I’m confused sometimes.

[00:06:38] The way a Ken Chenault talks about it is he says, it’s like, there’s underwater reefs and you’re sailing your boat along and everything’s fine. And all of a sudden you hit one. Right? And so like,you don’t know, you’re confused until something weird happens

[00:06:49] Jeff: from below. Yeah. Yeah. would the term biases be appropriate as you were just using it a moment ago?

[00:06:55] Shannon: Absolutely. Yeah. These cognitive biases are part of it.

[00:06:59]It’s [00:07:00] like that great quote of Dan’s that we talked about the other day, we were talking about Maslow’s hierarchy and Dan had said. we’re trying to solve the upper levels of the hierarchy with a brain that evolved to solve the lower levels of the

[00:07:14] Jeff: hierarchy.

[00:07:16] Shannon: Yeah. I love that phrase

[00:07:18] And we,we don’t realize. Our brains didn’t evolve to make us happy. So our brains will tell us to do stuff like stay in bed another. Or,  have another

[00:07:29]Jeff: cupcake

[00:07:30] Shannon: which ultimately may not lead to our longterm happiness.

[00:07:34]     And, it’s okay to use a tool. For something other than what it was designed for. Yeah. Or  the one I came up with was cause I’m old. I came up with, you can use a wire coat hanger to break into a car. Oh

[00:07:47] Jeff: yeah. That’s another good one as well,

[00:07:50] Shannon: but it’s helpful, but

[00:07:54] Jeff: it’s

[00:07:55] Shannon: helpful to know that’s not what it was designed for.


[00:07:58]  So it’s not [00:08:00] just biases, like lists of biases Judson brewer in his book, the craving mind equates this of Ija with subjective bias. But my sense is that it’s bigger than that.

[00:08:12]one obvious example I think is that we equate pleasure with happiness or fulfillment. And we equate pain with something that is harmful or a punishment. Yeah. And and we do that because we evolved in an environment where those,those two things were very,very closely linked.

[00:08:31] Jeff: Sure. If something was to survival and wonder.

[00:08:34]Shannon: exactly. But now we are, you might even say mal evolved for the environment that we’re in. And so pleasure. Simple carbohydrates. Being as lazy as possible is no longer as fulfilling as it might once a day.

[00:08:51] Jeff: And it has adverse effects on your ear. Survival.

[00:08:54] Shannon: Yes. Yeah.

[00:08:55]Jeff: your lifespan,

[00:08:57] Shannon: right? Yeah. And your happiness and the happiness of those around [00:09:00] you,


[00:09:00] Jeff: whereas things like suffering, exercise and things like this that can be

[00:09:04]Shannon: learning in public. Yeah. Which is very uncomfortable. Sometimes

[00:09:10] Jeff: it could be interpreted as a risk of one’s social status.

[00:09:13] Shannon: Yeah, absolutely.


[00:09:14] I came up with a couple of examples of talking about misunderstanding. Would that be helpful to you?

[00:09:20] Jeff: Yeah. Yeah, I would yeah, I would appreciate some like

[00:09:22] Shannon: a concrete. Yeah. We’ve talked theoretically , but here’s some examples. One is that I sometimes will beat myself up because I’m thinking I’m being lazy, I’ll, I don’t have enough willpower.

[00:09:34]And in the first place beating oneself up is not a very good habit change technique.

[00:09:40] Jeff: So it’s not

[00:09:41] effective.

[00:09:42] Shannon: It’s not particularly if I did, I

[00:09:43] Jeff: preserved pretty persistent about that as well.

[00:09:45]Shannon: And that is the missing we think. if I’m just, if I just beat myself up harder,

[00:09:48] Jeff: there’s a sufficient amount of criticism.

[00:09:50] We’ll do it.

[00:09:52] Shannon: Right.So there’s a perfect example of misunderstanding how our brains work. But also what we don’t understand is that our brains and our bodies [00:10:00] evolved in an environment of scarcity and danger. And so our bodies and brains are constantly trying to conserve as much energy as possible.

[00:10:09] And by as much as possible, I don’t mean like I’m trying to think of a mundane thing to say. I don’t mean like,Oh well, after I do the dishes, I’ll rest

[00:10:19] Jeff: as much as

[00:10:20] Shannon: possible. I mean, there is not a tiger chasing me right now, sitting on the couch.

[00:10:25] Jeff: That’s fine.

[00:10:27] Shannon: Because we evolved in a place where Tiger’s chasing you was the problem or lions,

[00:10:32] Jeff: other things that want you to delicious person, polar bear.

[00:10:35] Shannon: So  our brains and bodies are not broken. We are not lazy. We are actually optimally functioning for the wrong environment. And when we realize that we can stop beating ourselves up and we can bring compassion and kindness, and we can say like,Oh yeah, brain, ah lots

[00:10:54] Jeff: world changed.

[00:10:55] Isn’t it.

[00:10:58] Shannon: Let’s get up off the couch. [00:11:00] Yeah, we can, wecan set up. now I’m getting into fixing it, but the misunderstanding is that we do these things that aren’t skillful and we don’t understand why they’re not skillful,

[00:11:10]Jeff: why they’re not working

[00:11:11] Shannon: and why they’re not working.

[00:11:12] Jeff: Maybe we don’t understand.

[00:11:13] They’re not skillful. we justwe have conventional wisdom. It’s common sense that you should

[00:11:17] Shannon: beat yourself up, whatever, but it’s also common. But then when you say it, everybody’s like,yeah, totally doesn’t work. That’s definitely

[00:11:25] Jeff: common.

[00:11:26] Shannon: Yeah.  another example

[00:11:28]I might have this experience of someone offering me some,  advice. And I have this unpleasant hedonic tone

[00:11:36]which we haven’t talked about yet, but I’ll have this,this momentary unpleasant hedonic tone. Yeah, there are no right.

[00:11:43] And the unpleasant hedonic tone. the ER is. Actually because my brain doesn’t want to do any work.  It’s trying to conserve energy. It doesn’t want to think about this new idea.

[00:11:53]my brain thinks,

[00:11:54] there’s unpleasant hedonic tone. This is a bad idea. And then I’ll be like, no, your idea is bad. I don’t [00:12:00] want this idea. And then later, When that has kind of soothed a little bit, and there’s no longer unpleasant hedonic tone. And I’m thinking about the idea. I’m like, Oh yeah, you know, I really should reorient my desk to face this other window.

[00:12:11] The lighting is better and it would be nicer. And so my brain gets this unpleasant hedonic tone, which is actually about  quote unquote laziness.     no new ideas, no new thinking. I can’t think more right now because I’m trying to conserve energy. So the brain says no.

[00:12:26] Jeff: Sometimes I have a similar experience, but I, I think about it as an attack, which also figures into survival. if someone is telling you why you’re doing a wrong then that might be an attack to be defended against.

[00:12:39] Shannon: If you haven’t asked

[00:12:39] Jeff: for this advice. I

[00:12:40] Shannon: haven’t, maybe I haven’t asked for it. Maybe. Yeah. My brain isn’tisn’t on that path right now. And so a new piece of advice coming in when I’m not ready for it is there’s just no. And then the way that I interpret that is not, Oh, my brain  is trying to conserve energy.

[00:12:56] The way I interpret that is I have an unpleasant feeling. This must [00:13:00] be a bad idea, or this must be an attack

[00:13:05] Jeff: or no, go away.

[00:13:06] Shannon: No go. Yeah, exactly. And then later when I’m working on that problem or when I’m daydreaming and the idea, cause I was like, Oh actually that’s a. That’s a

[00:13:15] Jeff: finite to be evaluated in,on its own merits, maybe.

[00:13:18] Exactly.

[00:13:20]Shannon: and the reason that we have that response again is because we misunderstand what’s happening in our brains. Our brain is actually trying to conserve calories. And what we think is, Oh, this person is giving me bad ideas or as being mean to me or, whatever it doesn’t understand me.

[00:13:33] Doesn’t understand me attacking me, maybe I’m wrong. Does that make sense?

[00:13:37] Jeff: Makes sense. I have this experience.

[00:13:39] Shannon: Yeah.

[00:13:40]Another problem in modern society of us not understanding how our brains work is that there are engineers at Dorito and Facebook,

[00:13:49] Jeff: and we go into nears. I would like to meet,

[00:13:52]Shannon: it’s not a food, it’s an engineered product. Yes, that’s true. these people very well and they’re getting better all the time.

[00:14:00] [00:13:59] How our minds work. They use these , deep neurological frameworks to their advantage. Not to our advantage.

[00:14:07] Jeff: I know a girl one time who wasa line engineer at Disney that’s right. Like she engineered the lines at Disneyland. So that you would have a good experience waiting for two hours to go down a rollercoaster that takes one minute then and people did.

[00:14:21]    Shannon: . And in that case, one might say that the engineer is,is understanding how our mind works and using it for good, or they might say it’s using it for ill because they’re making us stand in line, which we wouldn’t normally do.

[00:14:33] Jeff: Maybe that the tricks like, Hey, you could pay extra and that’d be fine.

[00:14:37] Shannon: Exactly. and because we don’t understand what’s happening, we are fooled by these engineers. And so that’s another aspect  of how this misunderstanding can affect our happiness, our fulfillment, our, yeah, our flourishing,

[00:14:52]Jeff: you know, what aspect of that might be interesting to talk about is that you and I have recently read a book called StoryBrand by Donald Miller [00:15:00] and StoryBrand.

[00:15:02]makes the case that people receive information as,as stories. and so if we the person wanting to convey information, just go ahead and present it as a story. Then we save the listener a lot of work. they don’t have to construct. They don’t have to spread all the pieces out and then construct a story around them.

[00:15:19] Instead, a story is presented in a ready-made way, right? would that be an interesting thing to, talk about?

[00:15:26]  Shannon: Story has become very popular in the last decade. 

[00:15:29] We think that,  if you give people enough data about what’s happening with the COVID virus, they will respond in a rational way. And actually what needs to happen is you need to give them stories. You need to tell them, you need to tell them about what’s going on with people around them   

[00:15:44] the evolutionary psychologists say that we learn through story because it helps us prepare for the unexpected and humans. Don’t like the unexpected. And so we are wired to listen to the stories of others. So that it will help us to survive [00:16:00]

[00:16:00] Jeff: The idea of a story might be thought of as the opposite of a bias.

[00:16:05] We were talking about cognitive biases. I’m going to go a story. It might be thought of as like the opposite of a bias, like a cognitive pathway. we have a long list of cognitive biases, but the story might be on the list of ways that your brain does work.

[00:16:21] Shannon: Yes. And. I will say it works, but if we don’t understand that’s what’s happening why, why do I cry when I watch that Google ad, it’s a Google ad people.

[00:16:33] I cry when I watch it.  it’s a woman whose grandfather tells her a story  they’re in India and  he’s from Pakistan.  I cry when I watch this ad. It’s

[00:16:42] Jeff: fantastic. It’s two old friends coming together after not seeing each other for many years

[00:16:46] Shannon: for decades. It’s yeah. And I cry.

[00:16:48]I’m not sure that is not misunderstanding how my brain works, especially before I knew about story.  Google story engineers are tweaking with my brain. You know, who’s really tweaking with my brain, [00:17:00] Dave Filoni and if you don’t know who that is, that’s fine. He’s the primary writer for star Wars right now that guy has put worms into my brain,

[00:17:13] baby Yoda and his compatriots. Yeah. Yeah. You know and. If you don’t understand that’s what’s happening.  if you’re the kind of person who goes on tumbler and searches, the hashtag maybe Yoda

[00:17:28] Jeff: that’s actually

[00:17:29] Shannon: grow, go. Now he has a name. So anyway, you read people in there saying I’m hyper fixating on star Wars.

[00:17:35] Again, this is a common post that is made in Tumblr and I’m doing it too, but at least I know I know why I’m doing it and I know how to get out of it. And these people don’t know how to get out of it because they don’t know how their minds work. All they know is they’re hyper fixating.

[00:17:49] Jeff: That’s an interesting point.

[00:17:50] That’s, what’s why people might find themselves watching more TV than they might want to be.

[00:17:54] Shannon: Yeah.

[00:17:55]Jeff: Or spending more time on social media.

[00:17:59] Shannon: Oh, [00:18:00] absolutely. Social media is

[00:18:01] Jeff: more from various news sources.

[00:18:03] Shannon: Absolutely because they don’t understand how their minds work and they don’t understand how things like infinite scroll turns you into a zombie and how to circumnavigate those things.

[00:18:13] Yeah.

[00:18:16]Jeff: I found myself in those traps from time to time, sometimes more than others, it comes and goes. I found that by constructing stories, telling myself our hero wakes up from the bed

[00:18:35]Shannon: Before or after checking his phone

[00:18:36]Jeff: off to a healthy breakfast.

[00:18:37] Shannon: Okay. I see. huh.

[00:18:38]Jeff: yeah sometimes the checking in the phone,

[00:18:40]And the checking of the phone can be an obstacle because it it has a magnetism. That’s a

[00:18:45] Shannon: lot of magnets.

[00:18:46] Jeff: It’s a little, it’s a black hole. It wants to pull you right in. Yeah. But I’ve found that if I keep running, if I keep telling a story, if I keep my velocity up, that I can ping off of it.

[00:18:58] Sure and notnot get bogged [00:19:00] down. and I’ve been learning a little more about telling stories. And so I’m hopeful that technique will get a little more effective.

[00:19:11]Shannon: talking about stories like any tool could be used for good or ill. I could tell the story of being a disabled veteran

[00:19:19]what if the story I told myself is I’m a 70% disabled veteran. That’s a very different story. And it leads to very different outcomes than, Oh, I get up in the morning and I do yoga, and then I go do my pull-ups. and so stories can also be, they can be helpful if they’re used for good, but they can also be, I’m a person who’s depressed.

[00:19:40] I’m a person with a bad childhood.      and I’m not saying that people don’t deserve to have depression or a bad childhood or to be, 70% disabled, but we can tell ourselves stories in ways that are not skillful,

[00:19:52] Jeff: can

[00:19:52] Shannon: be a tool. Yeah, absolutely.

[00:19:54] Jeff: It can be a tool. It can be. Yeah. Parallel to habit. Yeah. Habit can be eating good [00:20:00] foods or eating bad foods. It can be doing exercise or not doing exercise. Yeah. It can be, what is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Is it checking your phone as it might be for someone then

[00:20:12] Shannon: going back to sleep?

[00:20:14] Jeff: It feels good.

[00:20:15] Shannon: It’s my favorite one.

[00:20:15] Jeff: Yeah, that’s good.

[00:20:18]Yeah,  but put the point we were making is that it’s a way that our mind work, which is not obvious to us from  the inside,

[00:20:25] Shannon: right? Yeah, absolutely. And so just knowing, like we can tell stories to ourselves for good or ill and being careful about which ones.

[00:20:33] So this first part of dependent origination is, Hey, there’s a background of misunderstanding our brains work. Fine.

[00:20:41] Jeff: That’s a powerful thing.

[00:20:42] Shannon: It’s incredibly powerful because like you said, it doesn’t feel like I don’t know how I look over there and there’s a chair, I it’s working fine.      there’s an amazing book.

[00:20:53]who’s in charge. Where they look at studies that were done on split brain patients, where they cut the Corpus [00:21:00] callosum between the two brains hemispheres and  I can’t go into it here, but it’s an incredible book and you need to go get the audio book version and read it and stop listening to all podcasts immediately and go get this book.

[00:21:10]but people’s consciousness seemed to be in one hemisphere and wasn’t communicating with the other hemisphere. So the body would do a thing. And then the conscious mind couldn’t explain what it was, but it would make up a story about why it was doing that because it had a sense of being whole, it had a sense of understanding and being rational.

[00:21:28]yeah, brains are really interesting. So , quit your job and study cognitive science. And it’ll be really fascinating. I promise. Just kidding. Don’t do that.

[00:21:39] It’s way more fun to learn about it from me.

[00:21:46]How’s this landing so far.

[00:21:47] Jeff: Good. Okay. I feel like I understand it.

[00:21:50] Shannon: Awesome. Should we move on to the second part?

[00:21:53] Okay. So the second part of dependent origination is a pollywog [00:22:00] son, Carter, often pronounced Sankara. This one, the standard translation. She grits, her teeth is  formations.

[00:22:12] Jeff: Oh man. I have no idea what that means.

[00:22:13] Shannon: Yeah. I meaneither When I first learned about this term, actually I had, I’d forgotten about this talk by peacock.

[00:22:19] Cause he actually gives a better explanation, but I was like volitional formation. What’s that? So I  read a bunch of texts and try to read through the Nikkei is hoping that I would understand it from context and it never happened. I never understood what a volitional formation was.

[00:22:31] Jeff: The formation of my volition.

[00:22:33] Shannon: Yeah. I don’t know.   so in this talk and I’ve also heard other teachers since then say this, he says it can be translated as habit.

[00:22:40]Jeff: Seems

[00:22:41] Shannon: much more comprehensible to me because I know what a habit is. Yeah. actually I will say, I used to think, I knew what habits were until I started

[00:22:52] Jeff: ballet. Your brain didn’t work the way that you thought.

[00:22:55] Shannon: Exactly. So

[00:22:57]Jeff: she’s very excited right now.

[00:22:59] Shannon: Yeah. [00:23:00] Just

[00:23:01] Jeff: containing it.

[00:23:03] Shannon: I think it might be helpful to say that my current understanding of neurological and behavioral aspects of habit are informed by Dr. Judson brewer work by Dr. BJ Fogg on tiny habits and the book, the power of habit by Charles Duhigg. So that’s where I’m coming from today.

[00:23:22] Right now.

[00:23:23]I used to think about habits as something I could track. Did I write in my journal? Did I work out? Did I curse , what,as a thing that was trackable

[00:23:34] Jeff: check Mark on the calendar. Yeah, exactly. No you’re doing your habits,

[00:23:37]Shannon: but as I learned more about brain function, I’m beginning to see that habits are a.

[00:23:44]I learned this word recently substrate all like they are part of this, of the substrata of how we function as humans. Yeah. first this is paraphrasing Alan Watts. The self I believed myself to be is nothing but a [00:24:00] pattern of habits.

[00:24:01] Jeff: That’s self. I believed myself to be nothing but a pattern of habits.

[00:24:07] Shannon: Maybe the way to describe it is that I used to think  that habits were these these trackable items. But now  I’m understanding habits as being of three parts. So

[00:24:17] Jeff: they’re not just check marks on a calendar,

[00:24:18] Shannon: not just check marks on a calendar. There are, there is the check Mark on a calendar aspect, but there’s also a behavioral,  uh, personality, behavioral aspect of habits.

[00:24:29]Did you experience, maybe it’s just me. Did you experience growing up going away to college, away from home,  growing into the person that you are in college and then likegoing home and finding yourself reverting to behaviors of a 16 year old. Yeah.

[00:24:44] Jeff: Yeah.

[00:24:46] Shannon: I don’t know about you, but that was horrifying to me.

[00:24:49] I was like, who is this person? This who is this. Those are habits. We are responding to stimuli to the way we’re being treated by our parents, to being in our old bedroom, whatever

[00:24:59] Jeff: the [00:25:00] smell of the place

[00:25:00] Shannon: smells of the place. We have. All of these reinforcing triggers that become our personality.

[00:25:06] We respond to the world in a particular way. but that’s really a a habit. If a habit is an automatic response to the world, that is a habit.

[00:25:14]Jeff: Well, it’s interesting. I’ve experienced this,   going home to my parents’ house and not liking that experience recently, but talking about moving to a new house, I wonder if that will help my old room.

[00:25:29] Won’t be there. It’ll be in a different neighborhood.  That’s interesting.

[00:25:33] Shannon: Yeah. personality traits are a sort of habit. From a psychoanalyst point of view, you might say, okay, this person was raised in a family where maybe there was an abusive situation.

[00:25:45] And what they learned was to be very quiet and to keep their head down. And that was very safe. And thatthat’s what kept them alive as a young person. And so it was the right thing to do, but then they developed that into a habit. And now they’re an adult. And they continue these behaviors, even when they get into a loving [00:26:00] relationship with someone, they might shut down in ways that are no longer really functional or skillful because they’ve developed  this personality or behavioral response, that is a habit from

[00:26:11] a legitimate survival habit from their early developmental,

[00:26:16] in our relationship, , there are times that something will happen and I will respond in a way that is not actually applicable to the situation at hand

[00:26:24]  a common parlance is I’ve got baggage. Right. And I get triggered. And so I play out a particular behavioral pattern that actually doesn’t have anything to do with the situation at hand. Oh, that’s

[00:26:34] Jeff: a habit. Yeah. And it’s been initiated.

[00:26:37] Shannon: Yeah. And that is a personality trait in, in a lot of ways, people who respond habitually with anger are considered angry people.

[00:26:45] And so not only our habits, things that we check off on the wall, but habits our personality, to some extent,

[00:26:51] Jeff: it was interesting. We are a collection of habits.

[00:26:56] Shannon: And then, so there’s these two types of habits that I was able to parse [00:27:00] out

[00:27:00] Jeff: real quick. Two types of habits are

[00:27:02] Shannon: the things you check off.

[00:27:03] Yep. And then personality. Okay. A sort of default personality.  we all have the ability to transcend that and to be skillful in the moment, but

[00:27:12] Jeff: we have default. So

[00:27:13] Shannon: we have default patterns we fall back on.  when I teach MBSR classes, I’ll.

[00:27:17] I’ll often say, this term fight flight or freeze, we typically have a default. ,  I, for example, default to fight, there are other people who default to freeze.

[00:27:28] And so we have these default patterns in our nature. So there’s a third one.

[00:27:34] The third habit is. Here’s a scenario. You are going to the doctor’s office. You get in your car, you back out of the driveway, you start driving and you wake up and you’re three-quarters of the way to work.

[00:27:50] Jeff: I had this experience and then the car is the morning, time of day.

[00:27:57] Yeah.

[00:28:00] [00:28:00] Shannon: So this one it’s not quite a checkbox on the wall and it’s not a personality trait, but it’s almost the scripts that we have. do you, again, the power of habit, he talks about this and how the basal ganglia memorizes patterns of behavior that can be quite complex, like driving to work is very complex.

[00:28:17] Sure. And it has,

[00:28:18] Jeff: it involves reacting to other traffic and such. It’s not just like your morning routine and the, the food and the coffee and so on are all in the same place at each day.

[00:28:26] Shannon: Yeah. So we execute these scripts and the way that this functions in the brain is the brain turns on and it’s like, execute a script.

[00:28:34] And then the brain turns off and starts and the body and and parts of the brain are still functioning, but the lower levels start to execute scripts that we can be listening to a podcast or talking to our friend or being mad at somebody and thinking about how we’re going to get them, wait at work, even though we’re supposed to be going to the doctor’s office.

[00:28:51] And then at some point, the brain checks back in like how we do it on the script. Usually when the script is completed, we check it. And then we realized like, Oh no, I’m at the office. [00:29:00] And I was supposed to go to the doctor.

[00:29:02] Jeff: Maybe we detect some  big enough difference between the thing we wanted to do and the thing we are now doing and a trip, some kind of

[00:29:08] Shannon: Oh no.

[00:29:09]Yeah, yeah. So the brain is actually, again, it’s about conservation of energy. It’s about not having to think about this stuff. And these patterns are. Ubiquitous throughout our day, I had this one, the wrong pants story.

[00:29:21]Right. So

[00:29:23]Jeff: there we go.

[00:29:24] Shannon: I’m on the phone and I’m cold. And so the thing I told my brain was, Hey brain. I would like to put on some warm pants, go put on the pants, but I’m on the phone. So you handle it. So I’m on the phone. I walk into the bedroom, I get the pants, I put pants on. I walked back to my studio and I realized.

[00:29:43] These are not the warm pants. I just taken a pair of pants and put them on over my other

[00:29:48] Jeff: pants

[00:29:50] Shannon: put on the wrong. So I had to come back and take those it’s on put the other pants on. But what had happened was everyone was like, go put on pants. And my, and I was like, okay. And [00:30:00] now if I went, I put and I was awake.

[00:30:01] I was alert. I was talking on the phone and the whole thing going on, but my brain executed a script. It was just the wrong script. And there was that sense of like,it kicked back on  when I got back to the studio like, did we finish the script? And we checked back and like,no, we did it wrong. And I’m starting to see these all the time.

[00:30:20] Now that I know to look for them taking a shower the other day, and the tub was draining a little slowly. ,  so there was a little bit of water in the bottom of the tub and I was drying off with my towel. And I was drying off one leg and like,I couldn’t stop myself from drawing the entire leg.

[00:30:35] Although it required me putting my towel in the water, my hands just dried. And I was like, but there’s a water. And like,it went in the water. I was like, yeah. And then I was like, okay well, I’ve tried that, like now I have to dry the other like, and I watched the script was like, you’re drawing off you always dry off to your ankles.

[00:30:51] Then you step out of the shower and you dry your feet. So we have to dry off the whole body. And there was this urge to dry off my other leg, even though I [00:31:00] knew my towel was going to get wet if I did it. So I was able to like, it was very clunky. Yeah. 

[00:31:05] So there are these scripts that are constantly running.  We’re operating with this threefold habit of these scripts that we don’t know, we’re executing these personality traits that are a lot of times just , automatic reactions.

[00:31:18] We’re not responding with wisdom. We’re just reacting automatically. And maybe if we’re lucky, we’ve got a couple of other things we can check off on the calendar that we actually did a thing today. The matures did my chores. Yeah. Interesting.

[00:31:32] Jeff: Yeah. Why a wide swath of different kinds of habits.

[00:31:36] Shannon: Yeah. And there might be more, these are the three that I was able to come up with as I was working on this episode preparation, the thing that kind of freaked me out was I was like, then who am I

[00:31:47] Jeff: more part of that is me,

[00:31:49] Shannon: which right.

[00:31:50] Buddhism would say ha we got ya. Now you see, but it was really. There was a moment during preparation for this podcast where there was some real [00:32:00] like, coming to go to my moments, you know, of like, well thenwhat should I do if this is all just habit, what what do I do?

[00:32:08]Jeff: Do

[00:32:09] Shannon: I just execute the habits? Do I not execute the habits?

[00:32:11] Jeff: what do we fight them? Do we go along with them?

[00:32:13]Shannon: Because if I’m not, if I don’t do them, then I just lay in bed. Cause that is nice. That is one of my habits habit.

[00:32:23]So we’ve got these three different types of habits. how has this, how is this landing for you? what do you here

[00:32:30]Jeff: cannot find these kinds of habits in my life. Certainly the checkbox kind of habits, certainly the script kind of habits. And that’s a good, that’s a good term. Okay. And you didn’t have a term for that previously.

[00:32:43] I would call it autopilot sometimes when you’re driving, especially there was a time that I noticed it. I never had a pants experience like yours just yet. And I haven’t noticed it too much while I’m cycling. and the.  the personality trait [00:33:00] one is interesting to think about a habit I had.

[00:33:02] I hadrecognize that I do have personality. some personality listeners may not suspect from what they hear on this podcast, but it’s there. And I hadn’t thought about it as a habit, but that’s an interesting idea. And I think informative. Okay.

[00:33:18] Shannon: Okay. I guess the next thing I wanted to ask, as we’re closing up the podcast is,  what I’m offering you are two parts of a Buddhist doctrine.

[00:33:29] And according to this doctrine, or according to peacocks interpretation of this doctrine, these two are the backdrop on which human experience plays itself out. How does that sound for you?

[00:33:41] Does that?

[00:33:41] Jeff: I’m going to say a thing that I didn’t think I would ever say. Oh no. And here it is

[00:33:48] Shannon: going to steal myself over here.

[00:33:51] Jeff: I feel like.  Those two items are pretty good list on their own. And I guess I know that by saying that I’m inviting [00:34:00] another list to be creative. And it’s that’s at the one hand, I do think that this is a substantive conversation we had , around just these little nuggetsand useful on their own.

[00:34:12] Yes. But at the same time, I am feeling as though. There are plenty of lists that I’m aware just as a beginner scholar here, not a scholar as a foil on this podcast I’m aware of more or less than I might like to be. .

[00:34:28] Shannon: So what’s interesting, , maybe it’s interesting. It might be interesting to our listeners, if not to you, Jeff, is that when you look at dependent origination, as it comes down to us through these texts, there’s one particular SUTA called .

[00:34:42] The great SUTA on dependent origination and it only has 10 parts, not 12. And these first two parts are not in that list.

[00:34:50] Jeff: So they’re already their own

[00:34:52] Shannon: thing. What peacock suggest  is there were a bunch of different. lists [00:35:00] or concepts that were talked about, and then scholars were like, Hey, let’s put them all together.

[00:35:04] Jeff: Okay.

[00:35:05]Shannon: They were

[00:35:05] Jeff: not merged in from somewhere else to be at with.

[00:35:07] Shannon: Yeah, exactly. So I guess the thing I would like to know though, I’m going to come back around, I’m going to ask you again and put you back on point, which is, do you feel like, does this feel helpful in your life?

[00:35:18] Jeff: Okay. That’s yeah, certainly just generally, I think it’s helpful to have language, to describe a thing that’s happening in your life that you may not have had language before, right?

[00:35:27] It’s a blessing and a curse because now you can see it more. Yeah. Yeah. But generally I do think that’s useful because then you can work with L-DOPA.

[00:35:38]Shannon: yeah. You have to have a way to talk about it and point to it and say this is the thing that’s happening. Yeah.

[00:35:43] Jeff: Okay. Thank you.

[00:35:44] Shannon: Yeah.

[00:35:46] That’s all I’ve got

[00:35:46] Jeff: for today. That’s good. That’s enough. That’s plenty.

[00:35:49] Shannon: Okay, great. thanks once again, for being my co-host, you are a, you’re a great podcast, companion. I’m very grateful to you.

[00:35:57] Jeff: Hi, it’s a pleasure to be on the podcast. It’s a pleasure to [00:36:00] come here and learn something I never suspected that’s useful.

[00:36:05] Shannon: Great. Great. Thanks for listening listeners.  You can reach out to us through the usual ways. Dharma, or

[00:36:17]Jeff: Yeah, great. that’s the outro.

[00:36:21] Shannon: I feel like I need to say something else. I’ll say that again, but I don’t know. I feel like people have really long outros and that I should have one

[00:36:27] Jeff: also.

[00:36:28] Oh, do you wanna play some music, maybe

[00:36:30] Shannon: Downdowndown

[00:36:34] Jeff: really about having a distinct voice of your podcast. And this is a thing that would add to that. Yeah, will get a sense of your personality. That’s why they’re here.

[00:36:45]Shannon: Thanks so much for listening, may you be Well,?

3 replies on “Dharma PhD (the podcast) Episode 5”

(Darin from TPF6 here)
Thank you for sharing this. I’m currently diving deep into this in my life so this whole episode resonated (loudly) with me.

As a parent, one of the things we taught our kids to do was brush their teeth. This may seem like nothing as a teenager or adult; but, there’s a script that has some possible variation. Just like driving to work, teaching the brushing-your-teeth sequence requires each and every step to be delineated. Once the script is set (and probably the exact same for decades for most people), we asked our kids to “brush their teeth”. I love(d) the word “volition”. It speaks directly to the act of examining our habits and our bunches of habits i.e. scripts and our bunch of scripts i.e. personality.

This brings up changing one’s habits. I liked the addition of freeze to flight or flight. One of the things that I do (overly) well is self-examination to the point of omphaloskepsis. It literally means navel-gazing though there is some implication of inactive self-absorption. Put another way, I avoid change via overthinking.

I particularly liked the acknowledging almost empathy for the lizard brain as a part of oneself that is from a different time period. “I understand that you’re trying to keep the habits/scripts/personalities going the way they are because you (me/lizard/it) don’t want me to get eaten. Message acknowledged. Thanks for caring. End of conversation” That seems like a good new habit to start.

Jeff had made a comment about alternate personality. There was a big push for that kind of thing about five years ago. I’m going to guess that it was as much about Marvel movies as it was about some new research that gave it a big boost. A simplification who is your alter-ego, what can you do to assume that identity so as to do things you wouldn’t normally. During the podcast, there were a couple of “well who am I if I am the sum of these habits” moments. What don’t I know about myself? I find myself tempted to jump into that hole (see above) and stop myself by saying “turtles all the way down”. Simultaneously if I set a new goal or create something, where does that come from? (see below)

Possible question(s) for further research: To what degree are the lists an example of scripts? More broadly, what exactly are goals then? Is it the amalgam of habits/scripts/personality trying to generate new coke only to go back to classic coke and/or is it volition and/or is it something else? Does new primarily come from the novel and to what degree can we erase/rewrite the old? Is new really new?

I sense turtles, I’m going to stop now.

Thank you (pl.) for putting this out there.

Liked by 1 person

Dear Darin, HELLO! What a treat to hear from you. Thanks, first of all, for listening. And secondly, for this lovely stream of consciousness! I am honored to dip my toe in. :)

Turtles, indeed! One thing I appreciate in Gotama’s approach was the acknowledgement that some questions, some trains of thought, just like some actions, can be more or less skillful. It was something I wondered about when studying academic philosophy, “To what _end_ all this ink???”

I used to feel it was necessary to answer any question that came into my (or someone else’s) head. Now I feel fine letting it go, if it doesn’t seem to serve in the present moment.

Anyway. Really. It’s _such_ a treat to hear from you. Thank you for taking the time. It’s nice to know I’m not just screaming into the void. XD

With friendliness!

Liked by 1 person

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