Category Archives: science

The Buddha’s cure for what ails us all

If the Buddha were alive today and took an aptitude test to determine a career path, he would no doubt be assessed as a research scientist. He was not a philosopher or theologian. He had no interest in how life came into being or what happens after we die or if there is a deity — he said these things are unknowable. What he cared about was discovering the causes of suffering and finding a cure. And he found it! In the first of his Four Noble Truths, the Buddha, like a good medical researcher, used his acute observation to define the disease: the dis-ease we all feel at times: dukkha

In the Second Noble Truth, he identified the direct causes of that disease: greed, aversion and delusion.

In the Third Noble Truth he pronounced that Hallelujah, there is a cure!

And in the Fourth Noble Truth, he gives a detailed prescription for us to follow in order to live a joyful and meaningful life: The Noble Eightfold Path.

I’ve often wondered why there is a third Noble Truth. Why not just cut to the chase and dive into the Eightfold Path? One possible reason is to allow that sense of celebration to settle in before proceeding to the challenge of learning how to incorporate the eight aspects of the 8FP (Eightfold Path) into our lives. Pausing to celebrate is high on my list of important life skills. For example, “Yay, I got the job!” is a different mode than that first day at work. Even the perfect job requires discipline, and so does the 8FP. But the rewards of this discipline are both immediate and ongoing.

A funny thing about discipline: Back in my thirties I was writing a novel. Every day after dropping the kids off at school and doing my exercises at Elaine Powers (:-O), I spent three hours in front of my IBM Selectric typing away, fully engaged. I loved it! But friends often asked me, “Where do you get the discipline?” Discipline? I had thought of discipline as something imposed from an external source and internalized, so a mean-spirited inner aspect would crack a whip and force me to do something. But the discipline I had then, and have had throughout the years of teaching and writing this weekly blog post, is not a whip-cracking discipline but a true labor of love. Meditation was what made that novel-writing experience turn from a state of misery into a joyful process. And the regular practice of meditation all these years helps me to be lovingly disciplined in almost everything I do.

This will be the fourth time I have taught the Eightfold Path. Each time I use a different definer for the eight aspects. Traditionally, we use ‘right’ or ‘wise’, so ‘Right View’ or ‘Wise Speech’, for example. One time I substituted the word ‘spacious’, so ‘Spacious Concentration’, for I had found that for myself and my students our mental habits were very tight and tense. Teaching the 8FP this time, I wondered what might be the most helpful word to use, and what came to me as I was leading a metta practice that I always say the same way week after week, year after year, was the sudden addition — as if out of nowhere — of May we be skillful. Skillful! Yes, there’s a word that reminds us that we are empowered to be skillful in any moment.

The 8FP is wondrous set of tools to explore and develop more skillfulness in life so that we don’t cause suffering for ourselves or others. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not a pill we can take. It’s an ongoing practice.

I’ve also wondered why it is called a path. A path indicates a starting and ending point, but the eight aspects of the 8FP work in concert, intricately interconnected and complementary. There is no destination, and focusing on one, gazing into some imagined future, takes us away from this moment just as it is. The more we discover about the 8FP, the more we discover about ourselves and our way of being in the world. We not only see the patterns of greed, aversion and delusion, but learn how to skillfully deal with them, so over time they are not constantly making us miserable.

For this prescription to work, we need a regular practice of meditation. Otherwise, we are just learning ‘about’ the Buddha’s teachings instead of living them as the prescription calls for. So if you don’t have a daily practice, this would be a great time to start one. If you think you don’t have time, you might want to investigate further, notice how you are spending your time. Perhaps there is some escapist activity you would be willing to sacrifice to discover a life that you don’t need to escape. On this website you will find lots of support, including a link to the free Insight Timer app with tens of thousands of guided meditations by outstanding teachers.

Even ten to fifteen minutes a day of stepping away from the fray to simply notice physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away, will signal to your inner wisdom that you are ready to pay attention, ready to learn how to live with joyous ease.

So celebrate that there is a cure! And then join me and my in-class students who are looking forward to having something to ‘really sink their teeth into’, as we explore together this skillful prescription to cure what ails us.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Who is this ‘I’?

Scientific research is finding that our consciousness, the ’I’ and the ‘me’ that we refer to, is not a physical (or ethereal) form in our body but the relationship, the interactivity, the conversation between different parts of the brain. When researchers anaesthetize someone and study their brain activity, comparing it to the waking or dreaming brain, the difference is clear: The anaesthetized unconscious brain activity is very limited and centralized, while the conscious brain looks like lightning in different parts of the sky, call and response; like birds in the forest calling from one tree to the other.

This discovery is not all that surprising really. As we meditate and become more aware of the nature of our being in the world and in our own thoughts, we see that it is all about relationship. There is no solidity, there is only interaction. We know that even our bodies are not truly solid, but a series of processes that renew, repair and replicate cells. Nothing about us is the same as it was seven years ago, except the processes that organize matter to keep our bodies looking pretty much the same over the years (or doing the best that they can given external causes and conditions such as gravity, inadequate self-care and exposure to sun rays!)

Ever since the discovery of the atom, science has told us there is no solidity anywhere. What we perceive as solid – the furniture in the room, for example – is just an arrangement of molecules not totally unlike our own, and within each molecule, within each atom is mostly space. It’s convenient for functioning in the world to organize and perceive all this separation. Different creatures organize and perceive differently, based on what works best for getting their basic needs met. We would not recognize the world the bee sees as it buzzes towards flowers. We may not even exist in that world, so unimportant are we to the scheme of things from their point of view!

This idea that perceiving solidity in our surroundings and in our being is a kind of choice we’ve made as a species is unnerving. And it’s totally optional whether we are curious about exploring beyond this convenient way of perceiving the world and ourselves. We crave solid ground to stand on, to be sure of and to trust. But if we are curious and do sense that there is another way of seeing then we can begin to explore the possibility of trusting in this fine network of inter-relational activity.

You don’t have to hang out in a science lab to do your research, but can come to it within your own experience. Buddhism and other world religions support this exploration, this direct experience of some difficult-to-define way of being in the world. (At some point we will explore the concept of the Net of Indra, an ancient Buddhist model that supports the current scientific findings. But it deserves more time than I can give it now.)

But why would we want to explore this non-traditional way of thinking? Perceiving the world as solid works very well for us, does it not? Yes, but to over-rely on just this way of seeing, this way of being in the world, comes at a high price. When we resist opening to a more relational way of perceiving, we give up our sense of connection with nature and with each other. Instead we cling to the idea that being solid we are somehow protected and impervious to change.

As we age, most of us begin to see the false supposition of this presumed imperviousness. We may not be comfortable with it, but we see that this solidity we imagined isn’t true. Our bodies change as they age. Our parents and other loved ones die. If we stay with this view of solidity, we feel isolated and lonely. We feel we are going through a whole set of causes and conditions, and that we each have to face these difficult challenges alone.

So what good news when science shows us that indeed we are not solid, not separate, not alone! What a relief that the ‘I’ is a lively intricate set of patterns in a constant state of interaction. We are released from isolation and can dance in interconnection.

But what does this really mean to us in our day to day activities? It means that if we shift our focus from the solid to the interactive network we will find more vitality, creativity and joy.

If we sense our connection to each other, for example, rather than get stuck in defending the solid person we believed ourselves to be or judging the solid person we thought someone else to be, we can relax and release our fear. There is no ‘other’ to defend our separate self from. There is only this ongoing pattern of dancing molecules, of interactivity of thoughts, emotions and sensation.

In practical application, we focus not on another person but on the natural connection with them. Instead of seeing them as solid, isolated and locked in, we accept that they are fluid, connected and fascinating ever-changing expressions of life. This flushes out our harsh judgments about them, held over many years. It allows them to be in the space of our open embrace and to dance in the light of our awareness. What a difference this makes in our relationship!

We know from our own experience how it is to be with someone who thinks they know us, who thinks they have our number. We feel pre-judged without any room to fully be ourselves, that ever-changing fluid self that cannot be contained. So how much richer would our relationships be if we allowed for the ever-changing fluidity of others?

How often do we find ourselves bored in relationships because we think we are dealing with known quantities? We are not known quantities! Each of us is fluid. But when we are in the company of someone who sees us a certain way, we may fill that pre-defined shape just as water fills a glass.

So in this practice we notice when we are holding relationships in containers of pre-judgment, and if we can notice we are doing so, perhaps we can gently shift our focus to the fluid nature of being itself. This shift is enhanced through the use of metta – sending loving kindness and well wishing, staying with that outpouring of love without agenda.

Opening to hold the person in an open embrace, sensing in to the lightness, the spaciousness, we can be surprised by the interconnected quality of life responding to our openness.

This subtle shift into a more fluid way of perceiving life can happen in any moment, so we can relax and allow for it, rather than setting it as a goal and trying to achieve it. And even if it happens for only one brief moment, even if we only get a whiff of it, so to speak, it’s important to know that because it is timeless, that one whiff, that brief glimpse, can permeate our whole being. Just like a tea bag dipped in water, once introduced, however briefly, it can flavor our whole life.

Through our awareness practice we bring a quality of noticing. We can notice when some fear-based emotion knocks us into seeing ‘other.’ We can sense in our bodies the constriction, the rigidity, the tension that indicates how solid and separate we hold ourselves to be. And with time, this noticing will enable us to infuse breath, metta and spaciousness into any constriction, bringing wisdom, compassion and balance to the fear we feel.

In this way, we shift back and forth from seeing separated solidity and the fluidity of interconnection. But because the former has an increasingly false ring and supports us less and less (and in fact seems to get us into pickles more often than not!), it becomes easier to shift to this richer more joyous perception, this net of interactivity that is the true self, within our brains and between all beings. We resonate with it, because it rings true.