Notes for talk two in the 2014 dhamma talk series
The Feed Forward Loop
Each week during the Rains Retreat Series of Talks the notes will be published. If anything is mentioned during the session that needs clarification or links for further details, then it will be easily found.
There is a lot of strife in the world – now as always. What can we do about it? Probably a lot more than we are already doing. But for sure, personally, I don’t have the solutions. Gaza, Northern Ireland, ethnic wars in Myanmar and Bangladesh. And even America.
According to Buddhism the root cause of trouble is Greed, Hate and Delusion.
Without these in people’s hearts there would not be trouble.
Well, we can’t prove that. We can’t expect the government to legislate about it. And mostly, people would rather see greed and hate eliminated in other people, rather than oneself.
But working on your own being – that is something you can do. And that is what Buddhism is about. Getting into the practise, and transformation.
If you do meditation regularly, you can see clearly how hatred, attachment, desires, and all kinds of qualities are disturbing to the heart. If you have made progress you know the times when the mind settles, becomes bright and still. And happy!
It becomes clear what takes you away from that.
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment,
but not seeking, not expecting,
is present, and can welcome all things.
-Tao Teh Ching
In Buddhism there are specifically three ‘roots of unwholesome action’
- Greed (Lobha) – which is stimulation through focussing on what you like
- Hate (Dosa) – which is stimulation through focussing on what you dislike
- Delusion (Moha) which is stimulation through focussing on what you neither like nor dislike
You can see, these three are far more specific than their English translations would imply. And there are only three possible options in this particular schema.
These Three Roots of behaviour are a kind of personality model. Like any model, it is not the full picture. It is not meant to solve all the problems of the world and people. But it points to a certain pattern that we follow.
- Some people like to focus on what they like. They will tend to be future orientated. Their primary occupation is with what they would like to get, to change or to become. Lobha is not (always) so blameworthy, but it is very slow to fade away. They tend to be more sloppy in habits, dress, and movement. Renunciation is a good practice for this type. If they practise the Holy Life they will become one of great faith.
- Some people like to focus on what they dislike. They will tend to dwell in the past. Their primary occupation is with what they would like to fix or improve (problem solving). Dosa is very blamewworthy, but it is quick to fade away. Dosa types will dress in tight habit, dress and movement. Clean and beautiful practises are good for this type. If they practise the Holy Life, they will become very wise.
- Some people like to focus on what they are not heavily invested in. That is not really liking or disliking. Good examples might be TV, computer games, or getting absorbed in a smart phone all the time. Humans don’t like to be aware of themselves so it is very common to get lost in nonsense. Moha is very blameworthy, and slow to fade away. Simplicity practises (eg. in lodging) are recommended for this type. If they practise the Holy Life, they will become one of focussed thinking.
This is only a summary – in fact in the Visuddhimagga (Wikipedia entry here) – one of the main explanatory texts in Buddhism – this triad of character types is fleshed out in great detail, and used as a guide in how to differentiate new monks and assign suitable practices for them. The Vishuddhimagga is a huge and important text in Theravada Buddhism, and was put together around 1000 years after the Buddha. The whole text is available here. But don’t worry – you are not expected to read the whole thing before the next talk!
So in response to the world’s problems right now, this is our humble offering. Work on the real cause – the unwholesome qualities in the heart. Long term, it is the only answer.
THE Buddha himself lived by this principle.
During his life he twice sat between opposing armies, trying to call them to peace. The first time was a battle over water rights for the Rohini River. As the two armies were about to clash, they found the Buddha sat between them. Famously he told them
“Blood is more valuable than water”
and the two sides came to a peaceful arrangement.
The second time he sat between two armies was when the big state of Kosala sent an army to destroy the Buddha’s home city of Kapilavastu. The Buddha sat between the armies on three successive days, and the armies retreated. Finally on the fourth day her accepted that the Karma of the groups was too strong and he saw his home city destroyed.
The point of the story though, in our context, is that the Buddha concentrated not on politics, but on dissolving the three poisons in human nature. His teaching and leadership in this has been maintained through the generations, where the politics of his locality has been forgotten.
This is the important work in the long run.
Two Kinds of Meditation
THERE are many different ways to talk about meditation. One way to look at it is as two main sorts:
- Emptiness practises – aiming to slow down, empty out the mind, and stop still
- Stabilization practises – aiming to develop certain ‘good’ qualities, which help the mind become stable
This is not a common categorization, but it might be useful.
The first thing that people encounter when they start to meditate is the ‘Monkey in the Head’
Don’t think you are unusual. It is perfectly normal. After all, you spent most of your life engaged either in Lobha, Dosa or Moha right! The mind is accustomed to stimulation. It likes to be absorbed in something. That is the way you have trained your mind, so it carries on according to the habits you have established. You can’t expect this to change in 20 minutes on the sitting mat. It is a lifetime of work!
But here is the thing. You are suddenly seeing the mind in a fundamentally different way! Did you notice that?
Normally you walk about, go to work, read your book and watch Game of Thrones totally engaged in ‘your’ thinking. But now you are on the meditation mat, you are experiencing thought not as something “I am doing”, but as something that occurs by itself. You are seeing it as an affliction!
Most people miss this point. You just see it as unpleasant, and if you can just get to your facebook app, then you won’t experience yourself in this way.
The process of Insight Meditation is all about getting back to what is really happening. And if your thoughts are raging. If the monkey is clanging his cymbals, then that is what you have to bring into awareness. Don’t run away. It is a beautiful path. Be patient with it.
After you get used to sitting meditation, you find the opposite problem. Your mind switches off and goes to sleep. It is nice to stop the monkey for a while. But it is not the quality of ‘wakefulness’ that you are trying to develop.
It takes a long time to be able to sit and be still, without your attention wandering off. But as you do so, a great healing occurs. Like a snow storm toy, if you let things go, the muddy waters will clear.
Holding on to any ideas or goals will disturb the mind. Even the idea of enlightenment has to be abandoned eventually.
This is the real meaning of ‘mindfulness’ that we hear so much about in the media.
It comes from
- Sati – to recollect, or to call into the mind
- Sampajjanya – the feeling of awareness of consciousness
OTHER practises aim towards this emptying out too – such as Emptiness, Signless, or Desireless meditation. (There is a dharma talk that introduces these three meditations by Ajahn Pasanno here)
The feeling of emptiness, of sitting and just being is not that comfortable. Research shows that we have an optimal level of arousal, of excitement. If you push people beyond that level they will soon feel like getting away. Think of music being played loudly. Yes, in part it depends on if it is music that a human being can like, or rap music. But you will have a level of loudness that is comfortable. And while everyone likes over stimulation from time to time, you will soon seek to return to your optimal level.
For some that is very low stimulation, and for others it is higher. Think about a long day at work. Do you get home and arrange with friends to get to a nightclub to blow off steam? Or do you turn off even the computer and read a book with the cat on your lap?
Introverts will do the latter, and extroverts will do the former.
And even more interesting, this is a pattern right from birth! It is tested by making loud noises next to a baby. Those who respond , with tears, fear, or with interest, will probably become introverts. Those with little response, will become extroverts. The theory is that those with low responsivity to external sense stimulation, will seek to raise their levels of arousal with excitement. If you are over stimulated, you will seek out quiet spaces. The research is reliable, but obviously does not rule out change in your character with age or other variable conditions. See the excellent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
Lower heart rates are also a good pointer to your levels of optimal stimulation. In the Anatomy of Violence, research into anti-social behaviour and base heart rate levels show a clear connection (but again, it is statistical, and not a direct cause-effect relationship). One explanation is that low resting heart rate levels produce fearlessness – which means you’d be a good bomb disposal expert! If you test low for resting heart rate as a child, there is a good statistical chance that you will more aggressive as an adult. Another explanation is that such individuals lack empathy – and low empathy leads to more selfish aggressive behaviour.
Another explanation for how low heart rate produces antisocial and aggressive behavior is stimulation-seeking theory. This theory argues that low arousal represents an unpleasant physiological state, and that those who display antisocial behavior seek stimulation to increase their arousal levels to an optimal level.
In 1978 there an interesting theory was proposed called the Set Point. Here lottery winners, people with spinal cord injuries, and controls were measured for happiness. It turns out that despite the life changing events, levels of happiness remained quite stable in the long term. The theory suggests that people have a ‘set point’ or level of happiness, form which they do not vary much.
You might think of it like a bandwidth – you have an upper and a lower level.
The same theory was later applied to weight levels – you might gain a few pounds at Christmas, or you might lose a few pounds during a big work project. But generally you will maintain the same weight. To move your set level takes some determination. But it can of course, be moved.
Meditation is like this. You will have an upper and a lower level of stability in the mind. During a lot of stress you will be quite unstable. If you go sit with a good or inspiring teacher, you will stabilise more easily. But there’s an upper and a lower level in which you will move.
When people come to the monastery or sit around a famous teacher they think that if only they could be there for a month or a year, their meditation would be really superb – not realising that to move the set point is much more difficult.
We can also apply the same idea to morality. You probably wouldn’t kill anyone. But you might do something spiteful. You would not rob a bank, but you might cheat on your taxes. You have an upper and a lower range of behaviour.
To move your set point in meditation requires long term strategy.
THE traditional list is the Parami, or Paramitta:
1: Generosity (Dāna)
2: Morality (Sīla)
3: Renunciation (Nekkhamma)
4: Understanding (Pañña)
5: Enthusiastic Energy (Viriya)
6: Patient Forbearance (Khanti)
7: Honesty & Truthfulness (Sacca)
8: Resolute Determination (Adhitthāna)
9: Kind Friendliness (Mettā)
10: Imperturbable Equanimity (Upekkhā)
For monks and nuns, there is also the Vinaya – the list of rules and regulations (some 3000+). This is said to be ‘higher morality’, because it does not deal with right and wrong, but with restraint.
By practising consistent restraint of behaviour one becomes more used to controlling the mind. It becomes more stable. This is why, in Buddhism at least, we practise renunciation. It is very empowering.
Interestingly, in psychology also, to move your Set Point requires long term strategy, and a ‘higher’ altruistic approach to life : Psychology Today article
One famous test of ‘impulse control’ is the Marshmallow Test:
The test was designed to demonstrate Freud’s theory that a person is not a coherent whole, but a mass of warring drives. In this case the two drives are that of the ID – the pleasure principle that seeks gratification, with the EGO – which is rational and can ‘delay gratification’.
Interestingly again we find that results from children taking this test are good indicators of their adult behaviour in school, work and marriage.
[the researcher] …noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.
New Yorker article
To finish off, we see an example of the Buddha talking about stabilization practises in a graphic manner in a teaching called the Rathakara Sutta. Here the Wheelmaker represents a person making karma:
“Yes, lord,” the monks responded.
The Blessed One said: “Once, monks, there was a king named Pacetana. One day King Pacetana said to his chariot maker, ‘My good chariot maker, in six months time from now a battle will take place. Can you make me a new pair of chariot wheels?’
“‘Yes, your majesty, I can,’ the chariot maker replied to the king.
“Then in six months minus six days the chariot maker finished one wheel. King Pacetana said to him, ‘In six days time from now the battle will take place. Will the pair of chariot wheels be finished?’
“‘Your majesty, in these six months minus six days, I have finished one wheel.’
“‘But can you finish the second wheel in these six days?’
“‘Yes, your majesty, I can,’ the chariot maker replied to the king.
“Then, after finishing the second wheel in six days, the chariot maker took the pair of wheels to the king and, on arrival, said to him, ‘Here is your new pair of chariot wheels all finished, your majesty.’
“‘And what is the difference between your wheel that took six months minus six days to finish, and your wheel that took six days to finish? I don’t see any difference between them at all.’
“‘There is a difference between them, your majesty. Look at the difference.’ Then the chariot maker took the chariot wheel finished in six days and set it rolling. Going as far as its momentum carried it, it twirled around and around and fell to the ground. But then he took the chariot wheel finished in six months minus six days and set it rolling. Going as far as its momentum carried it, it stood still as if fixed on an axle.
“‘Now what is the reason, my good chariot maker, what is the cause, why the chariot wheel finished in six days, when set rolling, goes as far as its momentum carries it and then, twirling around and around, falls to the ground? And what is the reason, what is the cause, why the chariot wheel finished in six months minus six days, when set rolling, goes as far as its momentum carries it and then stands still as if fixed on an axle?’
“‘Your majesty, as for the wheel finished in six days, its rim is crooked, with faults & flaws. Its spokes are crooked, with faults & flaws. Its hub is crooked, with faults & flaws. Because its rim… spokes… [&] hub are crooked, with faults & flaws, when set rolling it goes as far as its momentum carries it and then, twirling around and around, falls to the ground. But as for the wheel finished in six months minus six days, its rim is not crooked, with no faults or flaws. Its spokes are not crooked, with no faults or flaws. Its hub is not crooked, with no faults or flaws. Because its rim… spokes… [&] hub are not crooked, with no faults or flaws, when set rolling it goes as far as its momentum carries it and then stands still as if fixed on an axle.’
“Now, monks, the thought may occur to you that the chariot maker on that occasion was someone else, but it shouldn’t be seen in that way. I myself was the chariot maker on that occasion. I was skilled in dealing with the crookedness, the faults, the flaws of wood. Now I am a worthy one, rightly self-awakened, skilled in dealing with the crookedness, faults, & flaws of bodily action; skilled in dealing with the crookedness, faults, & flaws of verbal action; skilled in dealing with the crookedness, faults, & flaws of mental action.
“Any monk or nun in whom the crookedness, faults, & flaws of bodily action are not abandoned; the crookedness, faults, & flaws of verbal action are not abandoned; the crookedness, faults, & flaws of mental action are not abandoned has fallen away from this Dhamma & Discipline, just like the wheel finished in six days. But any monk or nun in whom the crookedness, faults, & flaws of bodily action are abandoned; the crookedness, faults, & flaws of verbal action are abandoned; the crookedness, faults, & flaws of mental action are abandoned stands firm in this Dhamma & Discipline, just like the wheel finished in six months minus six days.
“Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will abandon crookedness, faults, & flaws in bodily action. We will abandon crookedness, faults, & flaws in verbal action. We will abandon crookedness, faults, & flaws in mental action.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”
Next talk is
NOT THINKING INSIDE THE BOX