To expect happiness without giving up negative action is like holding your hand in a fire and hoping not to be burned. Of course, no one actually wants to suffer, to be sick, to be cold or hungry, but as long as we continue to indulge in wrong-doing we will never put an end to suffering. Positive action is something we have to cultivate ourselves; it can be neither bought nor stolen, and no one ever stumbles on it just by chance.
—Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.
Looking deeply into the wrong perceptions, ideas, and notions that are at the base of our suffering is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation.
—Thich Nhat Hanh.
These quote viscerally reminds me of the current reality we live in as well as the paradox of our human condition, that being a good human being seems so much harder and complicated, despite all the economic, legal, political and technological progress we have made.
When we examine our minds and hearts, we recognize there are many negative, afflictive or harmful patterns of thinking-feeling-behaving that show up, often without warning and we feel unable to control its expressions. I am referring to such patterns as greed or attachment, to pleasure, good experiences, fame; to our self-importance, pride, and arrogance; to our righteousness, anger and aggression, and the absolute belief and clinging to an independent, inherently solid, singular, permanent self, I or identity. However, just paying attention and observing our negative patterns as they occur or most often, after they occur is not enough to reduce them in noticeable way is a common complaint many mindfulness practitioners are now reporting.
The new thinking of neuroplasticity and neurogenetics as well as ancient Eastern or Buddhist wisdom say that we can and must hack our old patterns and embed new ones within our thinking-feeling-doing and thus change our results. So, karma is not a fixed pattern, or fatalistic view, rather by changing our patterns today we can become a different kind of person tomorrow, we can change our behavior and hence our future.
Interestingly enough, neuroscientists are now pointing out that the negativity, such as fear, anxiety, aggression and greed sticks like velcro in our brain-mind-body, and that, as we evolved, such patterns were hardwired into our brains. They say the brain is rapidly sensitized to negativity through cortisol which has a 30-hour shelf life. Unfortunately, the brain is inefficient at turning positive experiences into neural structure because oxytocin released during positive experiences has a shelf life of a few hours only. Consequently, most positive experiences are not easily encoded in the brain. Rick Hanson argues that, “This is the fundamental weakness in psychotherapy, mindfulness training, character education, human resources training, and informal efforts at growth.”
What are the key negative default patterns to hack?
First a quick word about hacking which, in the computing world, means to modify a software program, often bypassing or penetrating security systems and programs. Likewise, it requires a sophisticated level of knowledge and capabilities to hack the existing interconnected patterns of perceiving, thinking, feeling and behaving already encoded in us, in our way-of-being. I have identified seven harmful or afflictive default patterns that must be hacked on the journey to developing our true potential as human be-ings, or buddha-be-ings.
Default pattern # 1: Mind-body dualism.
For the past 300 years, Western science, medicine and education have accepted the assumption of Rene Descartes on the separation of mind and body. The body is only a physical or mechanistic system and the mind is nonmaterial, mysterious and knowable to God but not us. It continues to underlie the training and practice of medical doctors and other professionals, including education. So, medical practice developed a fanatical focus on drugs and surgery to treat disease or pathology of the physical body and even mental illness. In many ways, there is a huge emphasis and value placed on how one looks and hence drives the big business of cosmetics, plastic surgery, gyms, fashion, food, weight control and very little on how the mind and heart works. Another Cartesian influence led to the current paradigm in science of rationalism and empiricism, which has resulted in a bind for scientists trying to investigate the nonmaterial world of mind, consciousness or self. However, more recently in the West, there is a convergence happening of meditation, brain training, emotional skills, and mind-body disciplines.
Default pattern # 2: Thinking-feeling dualism.
Today, a key conclusion among neuroscientists is that emotions and cognition, feelings and thinking, are fundamentally interrelated, including the body, as one whole system. This new thinking debunks centuries old belief that emotions and thinking are separate phenomenon. Even today professionals such as medical doctors, engineers, and managers continue to be trained to keep emotions out of their diagnosis and decision making. In actuality, brain scientists are telling us that decision-making processes involve the emotional parts of the brain, and that emotions engage the thinking brain.
Scientists also assert that we are unaware of many emotional patterns that are embodied and unconsciously shaping our perceptions, feelings, and behavior. The Eastern view seems to be consistent with the neuroscientific finding that, in essence the body, mind and emotions are intertwined and operate together as one whole system. This new thinking is slowly gaining acceptance among academia and other professionals.
Default pattern # 3: IQ more important than EQ.
The predominate paradigm in education is based primarily on developing our cognitive abilities. In the US, for example, the Bloom taxonomy echoing this paradigm is still taught in colleges of education. Educators are just starting to catch up to the recent neuroscience that now say both cognition and emotions are inextricably linked in the brain and that the rest of the body is involved in cognition and emotions. In fact, any decision-making process involves emotions, and emotions engage the prefrontal cortex. This is a far cry from the old myth that emotions have to be kept out of decision-making and also education.
An emerging concept called embodied cognition or learning is now gaining currency in academia. Colleges are being forced to look at how they are educating their students, but K-12 education is behind the curve on this. More and more educational experts are now acknowledging that emotional intelligence is very much integral to the formal cognitive learning process. In essence EQ is as important as IQ. So, there is a very exciting trend called social emotional learning or SEL along with mindfulness that is being introduced into schools. An embodied learning process is much akin to learning mindfulness or SEL: intellectual understanding, practice, coaching by a more experienced person, reflection, apply in the real world, feedback and more practice, until it becomes embodied as a habit. To learn how to hack the self, it is imperative that you engage in an embodied learning process not just limiting yourself to intellectual understanding through books, videos or listening to talks.
Default pattern # 4: Happiness depends on external causes.
It was very fascinating to me, when as an Asian I first moved to the US in the 70’s and saw how Americans pursued the right to happiness as enshrined in their constitution. Over the decades, I too was caught up in American culture. We believe in the right to all kinds of sensual pleasures, the good life as expressed in material comfort, being a good consumer and pursue making money as the most important job in life. Somehow we have been brainwashed into believing that happiness arises out of such external material things, experiences and pleasures. And, more recently, the idea of pursuing happiness has become fashionable or trendy. It is being promoted as something to be acquired and achieved, like a status symbol, a fixed, permanent, objectively measurable state.
This deluded way of thinking is also a major cause of mental suffering, depression, greed or avarice, arrogance, aggression and conflicts. What we must hack is exactly such a deluded belief. All the sages from different spiritual traditions tell us that happiness is internally driven, from our minds and hearts. In fact, a common advice they give is that happiness arises from helping others, being kind and compassionate, appreciating and being grateful for what we have, being present to whatever is unfolding with equanimity, and so on. In essence, to become happier we have to examine, tame and develop our own minds and hearts. This is why I have made it my personal mission to catalyze the integration of an education of the heart and mind into schools and colleges.
Default pattern # 5: Talk is cheap and has little power.
As human beings, we are all born into a pre-existing linguistic community, one with a common language, meaning, traditions, and ways of acting. Our lives take place through language: relationships, work, feelings, self-identity, self-narrative, as well as our past and future. Language is how we interpret and make sense and meaning of the world we experience. However, unlike the common everyday understanding, language does not just describe an objective world; it also differentiates and brings into existence a micro-world with all its meanings, contours, and ways of navigating. Likewise, communication is not just an exchange of information, facts, wishes, desires, etc; rather it generates feelings and moods, and moves us into action. It is relational and helps us dance with other human beings. Communication or conversation among human beings also influence the biochemistry in our brains and bodies.
Yet, this view is not new, at least in the East. Dating as far back as the 7th century CE, Buddhist thinkers such as Dharmakriti and Chandrakriti began to develop a cogent thesis about the nature of perception and cognition, and how concepts and language are embedded in the very structure of our everyday experiences. So, in my approach, conversations and hence language, speaking, listening, writing, reading, along with body gestures, expressions and symbols, have real power. My perspective is based on the work of scientists, Buddhist teachers, and my life experiences.
In our day-to-day life, we often automatically feel psychologically and emotionally threatened by conversations, it triggers the amygdala, a key part of the limbic-emotional brain, to invoke primitive responses of defense, mistrust, disengagement, and aggression. It not only changes how we feel and behave, but also how others perceive and respond to us. In a nanosecond, others could perceive you as either friend or foe. If the latter, they will likely close down and put their guards up, potentially sentencing the conversation to a us-versus-them battle. Worse yet, they in turn activate all of our old memories, clipping them together into a movie that we unconsciously replay, or edit old memories and turn them into a new scary movie, an interpretation that may be seen differently by people around us. Trust becomes difficult, too, when our inner world is full of threats, fears, and anxiety.
On the other hand, conversations that generate openness, discovery and trust trigger neurochemicals in the cognitive prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for thinking, analysis, emotional regulation and relationship building. In every conversation, we must observe and regulate our inner voice and emotional reactions, because they can affect the other person in terms of their own subconscious emotional reaction. Our conversations can either build trust, sharing and respect, or close it down. Finally, through our conversations, we can disclose new possibilities and co-create new realities together.
Default pattern # 6: The internal critic is true and real.
A very common default pattern that causes enormous mental suffering is believing our internal dialogue or narrative, particularly that the negative self-critic is real and hence is who I am. In other words, we believe it is real when we characterize or perceive ourselves as not being perfect, or good enough, or not as smart, or wealthy or that the other person is lazy, brilliant, or fill in the blank. We fail to distinguish that such characterizations are only interpretations and assumptions of what we observe, hear, see, feel, and not the real. Just because we feel it, or think and believe in them does not make them real and true. However, hacking into this pattern requires understanding the default patters of the nature of self and of the phenomenal world. In particular, it is important to observe without being entangled, to probe deeply without being perturbed and upset, to accept without being disempowered.
Default pattern # 7: My identity, self, I is real and exists independently.
The concept of self in the West does not have a widely accepted meaning among neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers. In Western psychology, there is a belief that the self is the essence or some combination of one’s thoughts, feelings, experiences and behavior. Today, however, neuroscientists claim they cannot find a self anywhere in the brain or body. But this is not the same conclusion as in Buddhism. The concept of self is also deeply linked with the concepts of mind, consciousness, perception, thinking, emotions or feelings. None of these concepts have a widely accepted meaning in the West even though they have been studied and debated for centuries, at least since the time of Rene Descartes in the 17th century.
In Buddhism, the view is that while the self appears in our perception and is experienced as though it is real, this self, I, identity is in actuality a conceptually or socially constructed entity, in which language or linguistic differentiation plays a crucial role. Upon a closer investigation of the self or I-ness, we find that it is not the body, nor the thoughts and feelings, all of which are in constant flux. This is why the Buddhists call it a delusion, believing something to be inherently real and independent when its appearance is conceptually constructed and dependent on other causes and conditions. It is this delusion that leads to afflictive emotions of greed, pride, jealousy, hatred, aggression, rage, etc. So there are specific daily techniques and practices to hack this delusion and create patterns of thinking-feeling-behaving more consistent with the view of self-less-ness or self as a conceptually constructed reality.
Default pattern # 8: The world exists as a solid, objective reality.
A corollary default pattern to the delusion of self says that the world we experience and live in exists independently as a solid objective reality. From a certain perspective, the world appears as an objective entity, which is the basis for classical Newtonian science. However, quantum science is also saying that upon closer examination, and depending on the measuring instruments, the so-called solid matter appears as a wave energy or as a fixed entity, a particle.
Based on our default pattern, however, we believe or take for granted that such phenomenon as relationships and experiences, our material possessions, current good situations are permanent and do not change. And, when they do change, we suffer, mentally. We lose sight of the fact that no matter how much we may wish, pray or visualize, such phenomena are in flux and impermanent. In fact, the moment we are born, we are dying, just uncertain, when, where and how. All relationships come to an end, life situations keep changing, feelings and thoughts change, our bodies change, societies change; the world we experience is in constant movement of change.
Throughout the ages, the Eastern masters have reminded us that we are living under a delusion, and are blind to it: that the world out there is real, permanent and solid; that our self, I, identity is real, solid, independent and permanent. These two default patterns, # 7 and # 8, are probably the most difficult to hack, and also, the most important ones to hack. Clearly, neither scientists nor psychologists have a coherent and proven body of theory and practice in hacking the above two default patterns. I have to admit I am not qualified to offer the deepest and most powerful hacking techniques available from Buddhism.Photo art supplied by the author.
Books by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries.
Rick Hanson, Buddha’s Brain, Hard Wired for Happiness.
The Emotional Brain by J. Ledoux, Descartes Error by A. Damasio, and The Emotional Life of your Brain by R. Davidson and article What is Emotion by Julie Beck, The Atlantic Monthly, 2015.
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