Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Beware the Feel-good Factor

The Buddha taught that the basic machinery of our angst, stress and un-ease in life is our reactivity. That is, if an experience is unpleasant, we have an automatic reaction of pushing it away somehow, and if it's pleasant, we have an automatic reaction of trying to keep it around, to keeping it going.
These are two sides of the same coin. Yet in nearly two decades of studying the teachings, attending retreats, workshops and talks, I've noticed a serious lop-sidedness in the attention paid to the two sides.
The vast majority of focus is on dealing with unpleasant experiences. Much less is paid to releasing our grip on the pleasant.
There are some obvious pleasantries that can get the spotlight - addictions to various pleasure hits like food, drink, drug highs and ego-trips.
But there's an insidious and very common addiction to pleasure that frequently has consequences, and is rarely looked at. The pleasure is this: ideas that make us feel good.
Gotama (the Buddha) often talked about the problems that arise from attachment to "views". The article I'm attaching here gives a concrete example in the workplace. It's an excellent summary about the different types of biases that afflict us and it points out that not all biases feel bad.
Most of us in the modern world would feel 'bad' if we realised we had racist views and we might make an effort to try and address that. However, as the article points out, there are other types of biases that might feel good, and therefore lead us to act in a harmful way because we have no interest in studying or changing them.
The article focuses on the example of age-ism. Research shows that people tend to have positive associations with 'older' people such as warm, friendly and trustworthy. These characteristics make us feel good, so we have no motivation to look at this "view".
However another element of the "old" bias is the characteristic of "incompetent". As you can imagine, this has important ramifications for decision making regarding candidate selection for jobs, and for promotions. This causes serious harm!
The attachment to "feel-good views" often plays out, ironically, in dharma practice. Indeed the secular approach to the dharma is especially ripe for it because it's so open to helpful ideas coming from anywhere.
There's a beauty in this which is that our mission to undermine our own reactivity can benefit from any practice or idea that's helpful, regardless of where it comes from.
However the down side is that we can latch on to ideas or practices that make us feel good, that maybe make us feel 'spiritually uplifted' but don't do anything to free us from reactivity. In fact sometimes, these ideas and practices can lead us to clinging to feeling good - the very situation we're trying to change!
But we don't want to look closely at the ideas, because we fear that the wonderful feelings might evaporate. So we hold tightly to them and stall our practice or maybe even let them separate us from others who don't share them.
Some examples of these ideas:
  • A 'good meditation' is one where we feel calm or "zen" as some people put it. If our meditation is unsettled or chaotic, we judge it as 'bad' and pine for a "good" one instead.
  • A notion of universal energy that makes us "all one"
  • The "healing power" of light or chakras
  • Awakening is a permanent state - once you're there, you're there
  • The 'healing power of the breath'
  • for people from religious Buddhist backgrounds, ideas about rebirth, or notions of a mechanistic system of karma as a form of justice distribution
Compared to views like "black people are inferior" or "women belong in the home", these kinds of views might seem harmless. But every one of them can hinder us from seeing clearly our actual experience, understanding it, and dismantling the unhelpful mechanics at work.
Back to the work place, and another element that makes pleasant "views" difficult to include in our practice is that they can be very subtle. The article mentions three types of bias. The one above is referred to as 'ambivalence' where we have contradictory ideas arise (old people are warm, friendly and trustworthy, but also incompetent).
But there is also 'ambiguity' bias which can be captured by the statement, “It’s not that I hate older people. It’s just that I like younger people, who are more like me, better.” Once again, my ideas about younger people make me feel good, so I cling to those and inherently (though not openly) judge others as inferior.
And the third is "'unexamined bias’, such as when an older person walks into an office and is automatically ignored". Again, I feel good about being associated with younger people, so I orient my attention to them, meanwhile, excluding those who don't fit that idea.
The Buddha has been called 'a scientist of the real'. Dharma practice requires us to slow down and look at how our experience works, so that we can let go of the reactive habits that drive us to cause harm for ourselves and other beings. This practice needs to include our views, both the obviously harmful ones and those that make us feel good. In fact we need to be especially mindful of these because their feel-good factor helps them slip under the radar of our awareness.

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