‘If you take the Buddhist precepts,’ says Bhante Bodhidhamma, ‘it’s like you’ve been running away from a load of javelins, just staying ahead of them. Then you stop running, and they hit you all at once’. When I heard this, it really affected me. It isn’t every teacher that will tell you that it’s going to be tough to practice like you mean it.
Of course, this doesn’t have to be the case. What Bhante is talking about is the various unwholesome habits that I discussed in the last post catching up with you. Once again, I’d like to stress there is some relativism in this; what might be too much for one person might well be perfectly reasonable for another. One person might be living their own Middle Way far better than others. Maybe you only have a couple of javelins, or they might in fact just be lil splinters. If so, good for you, and spare a thought for the rest of us slogging away… *winks*
It isn’t just the cause and effect of kamma. There’s the morality element, of course: if you’re crap to other people, chances are they’ll be crap to you. The more good you pour into the world, the more there is in it; and the doctrine of radical interdependence says that everything effects everything else intimately. But there’s also the insight side to this, the other strand. It seems like common sense that when you have a problem, you fix it. These problems are known, when it comes down to it, through the body: what is unpleasant and present is an issue, what is pleasant and not-present is an issue, what is pleasant and present is a non-issue. Claim that you are a rational creature all you like, but when you look with the lens of practice at your actions, you’ll agree with the behaviourists that you’re a huge bank of two-way switches. Like, don’t like, is the way it goes; and while you may be an amazingly intricate construction of these, with more or less deferral of pleasure built in in order to navigate reward and punishment, this is what it boils down to.
Once, on retreat, I found myself noting so thoroughly that a large amount of my experience slid over to the side of the objectified in a relatively normal-seeming consciousness, which is an odd one. Intention and reaction seemed so completely not-me, when usually people see themselves as somehow creating both, that I was largely the watcher seeing this body pilot itself about. When it got to breakfast, I watched how attracted the body was to the food I liked, trying to eat that as quickly as possible, and the slight tinge of aversion to the food that I didn’t enjoy so much. I remember complaining to my later meditation teacher that I felt like an amoeba, mindlessly moving towards what was nice and away from what wasn’t. She giggled as if it was hilarious that I didn’t know this already, and told me that this is always the way it is.
A bit of reading around neurology and addiction will tell you the same thing. We’re made of the same meat that animals are. We have self-awareness, and so the ability to train these impulses; but that doesn’t mean we work a different way. If you think about it, how on earth could you? This felt cheap to me for a while, and somehow sordid; but that was just another stage of practice, mourning how this self that thought it was so special turned out to be made of the same stuff as everything else. A large amount of traditional contemplative training is around self-discipline; the ability to notice craving and aversion, and not act on it, whether by creating a space between impulse and action, by avoiding the greatest lures, or often both. Without wanting to go off on too much of a rant, it should be clear to anyone who reads this that modern society gives opportunities to relieve the slightest craving very easily indeed, at the expense of long term planning if you’re not able to resist. I am not saying that things like credit cards and the internet are the devil itself, but that they are powerful tools and so easy to misuse.
Which is where my consideration of all behaviour as being, in some way, addictive behaviour, comes in. Addiction is usually defined in healthcare as a normal mechanism gone bad. The person who is addicted becomes physically and psychologically hooked to something gratifying. The neurochemistry of the body follows the way we’ve evolved to survive: there is the carrot of dopamine, linked to winning, garnering, associating, but the level of stimulus required to achieve the same level of pleasure becomes higher, pushing the caveman to not get complacent but to keep conquering. The mere absence of those chemicals is displeasurable to the person who is used to having higher levels of these, and so things that give such a quick hit of pleasure are the most easy to become addicted to. Some things such as alcohol are so violently unpleasant to be without during addiction that the side-effects are obvious and inescapable. Link that to the fact that many of these chemicals are dangerous in larger quantities, or simply are linked to behaviour that is antisocial and risky, and you’ve got a problem.
The trouble with this, as any liberal drugs campaigner will tell you, is that what is considered a normal level of obsession and what is considered an acceptable risk depends on what side of the law and social acceptability it is on. The clinical approach is a little more objective, as ‘mechanism gone bad’ points towards the idea that getting attached to anything too much is a bad idea. Nevertheless, the contemplative doctrine that all attachment to the world causes suffering is a rough pill to swallow and creates immediately defensive reactions in the heavily invested. It is easy to misinterpret the idea of detachment as not giving a shit. My use of the word ‘addiction’ is an old contemplative gambit, that of using an evocative image to point to just how deeply rooted the issue is, and often how radical the solution must be.
When I go on retreat, all the things I used to fill up perceived gaps are no longer there: no entertainment, cheeky naps, comfort foods, loved ones, and so on. I’m not getting my dopamine hits biologically, and psychologically I’m jarred out of my habits. Whatever is buried is free to come up, and the process itself of craving and aversion is suddenly, painfully, clear. It’s all the stuff I don’t like to look at. The more I’ve been living up to the precepts in my daily life, the less of a shock it is, and that’s because I’m not suddenly going from one extreme to the other. Stress tolerance, self-discipline and a bit of canny planning are all basic skills that can help to bolster when you are sitting on the cushion and there’s work to be done. Those perceived gaps are only a problem to the self. The unconditional doesn’t have problems, let alone with gaps.
- If you have an addiction, or just a strongly valued habit, refrain from it and notice how it feels.
- What is stopping you from subscribing to a set of contemplative precepts, if you have wanted to?
- Deliberately look for the positives that come from refraining from a habit.