Thursday, April 30, 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.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

No-Crap Compassion

Click here to watch this short video

What's the best way to grow qualities like compassion & warm friendliness? Should we 'fake it 'til we make it'? Or is there another way?

This was the discussion in my meditation group this week.

"Loving-kindness" meditations are common in dharma practice. Many of us shared that these didn't feel terribly authentic. Like we're saying the words - 'may all beings be well and happy'; 'may all beings be at peace' - but honestly... somewhere deep inside we feel like frauds; like we're faking it. These words don't move us. They don't evoke compassion or warm friendliness, and if anything, they evoke some sense of incredulity.

For me, it brought up memories of sitting through Catholic Mass - reciting a bunch of words that had no resonance with my reality.

Maybe some people find this helpful in building a new habit, in practising good intentions. But I find it leaves me cold. It's like I'm trying to talk some grand virtue into magically appearing inside me. It never happens.

However I've found another method that really works. The task is to look carefully for the real moments of compassion or warm friendliness (the translation I prefer for 'metta', usually translated as loving-kindness) in your day to day life. Some of us might have to look really hard. They might only be tiny green shoots. But they will be there.

It might be a moment of open heartedness for someone you see on the street or in the supermarket, who is clearly not in a happy, healthy space. It might be someone struggling with their body - maybe even walking is painful. It might be simply a look of hurt or sadness in their eye. It might be a post or video you see on the internet. (The one I've posted here opened my heart to compassion in less than 60 seconds!)

Then, when we find those green shoots, the task it to tend to them with great care. Take notice of them carefully, pull the weeds from around them. These weeds might be mind activity that squashes or works against this moment.

Water them - that is, pay full attention to them. What are the thoughts that give rise to the feelings? Give those thoughts lots of air time. Repeat them. What does friendliness FEEL like in the body? Linger on that feeling for as long as you can. Really pay attention to the small moments of these beautiful states. Have your mental radar switched on to look for the experiences you DO have already, and amp them up.

After our discussion ended, I had a funny mental movie arise. I'm standing next to an empty garden bed in my back yard, looking at the soil. I think: Option 1 - say the words "may there be a garden; may it be lush and green". Option 2 - look closely at the soil, find the tiny green shoots, pick the weeds from around them, water them, check on them daily.

I'm not suggesting this is the only way to cultivate the helpful, beautiful qualities we're capable of. But for me, this method works. For me, I've got to "keep it real".