Posts Tagged With: Buddhism

Do Ants Have Selves?

I had a mental experience the other day that seemed, at the surface, completely inconsequential but upon further inspection revealed itself to be rather interesting. I was sitting around idly while my partner did something routine and uninteresting. The specific thing he was doing isn’t actually important at all. What matters is that the activity had nothing to do with me and there was no usefulness or benefit to my being there. Now, I am a very impatient person. In most situations like this I would be perturbed that there was nothing useful I could be doing or that I hadn’t brought a book. Or I would be thinking about all the different ways I could use my time off, or how I’d rather be spending “quality” time with my partner instead of just watching him do some mundane task. But this time, strangely, there was none of this mental chatter. I remember simply gazing at him passively and thinking, “It’s good for him to be getting this out of the way. So, it’s good for me.”

Now, this may seem unremarkable. When you’re in a relationship with someone, you’re supposed to want what’s best for him or her, right? What do I want, a pat on the back for being happy for my partner? We all like to see our partners happy, and we all should cheer at the thought of them accomplishing things or improving their lives in some way. But although we’d like to assume this comes from a place genuine care and concern for another person, it’s often a little less romantic than that. Evolutionary psychology suggests the overwhelming majority of our thoughts are about ourselves.

Even thoughts that seem to be about other people still tend to revolve around how those other people make you feel. Even in the case of your romantic partner or best friend. When you carefully examine your positive thoughts about this person’s accomplishments you may discover they carry a much more selfish hue than you’d be willing to admit up front. Perhaps seeing them happy directly imparts happiness on you, or their success clears obstacles from your relationship. Though these thoughts are not selfish in the sense that they prioritize you over your partner, they are selfish in that they still revolve around your personal experience or happiness. Though the ability to feel genuine happiness upon witnessing another’s happiness can easily be attributed to what we call love, it doesn’t necessarily equate to altruism when that person’s life and emotions directly impact your own.

Now let’s bring it back to my seemingly unremarkable thought. In this case, I was not cheering a personal success for my partner or witnessing a big smile on his face. I was watching him do an errand, and a boring one at that. Yet I was still able to simply and convincingly tell myself, “This is good.” Contrary to what you might be thinking, I am not using this occurrence to make some grand statement about the validity of my love for this person. Again, the thought I had was still completely hinged on my own personal experience with the world. What’s interesting about the thought is the dissolution of the individual self it suggests. The essence of the thought was almost exactly the same as one I’d have while completing an errand of my own: “This isn’t particularly fun but I’m glad I’m getting it out of the way and will appreciate it later.” It’s interesting to me that though I could, at the time, cite no direct reason why my partner’s completing this errand would benefit me in the foreseeable future, I still felt convinced by the thought and was not perturbed by any need to examine further why I was spending my time sitting idly.

To me, this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of sharing your life with someone. Your lives become so entangled that you (hopefully) start to realize that your interests are aligned in ways you can’t even consciously perceive. The lines that separate the two of you may seem to blur a bit, and the chatter in your head begins to accommodate the needs of a person who was originally recognized as “other.” The concept of boundary dissolution and the questioning of the personal “self” have deep ties to Buddhism and modern psychology. Still, most people don’t experience a release from the concept of self in their daily lives, and might not even understand what that means. However, I think many people could attest to having thoughts such as mine. Thoughts that simultaneously encompassed the needs, intentions, or desires of another person as more or less “second nature.”

When I was in college I read an interesting book in my animal behavior class titled Baboon Metaphysics. It was a chronicle of a multi-year behavioral study of baboons that sought to determine how the primates handle their social lifestyles. Does their behavior stem from complex thought and concepts of identity or is it predominantly instinctual? The findings of the study were rather inconclusive, as metaphysical awareness is a pretty hard thing to judge; there are no philosophical pH strips. The researchers observed that the baboons seemed to fluctuate wildly between moments of near-human social awareness and primitive anarchy. But it’s the character of the question that interests me more than the answer. What are we seeking to prove when we want to find out how an animal views itself? Do we want to establish how similar they are to us? How “intelligent” they are? We often question whether animals (specifically mammals) view themselves as individuals but seemingly neglect the alternative. What would it mean, for instance, if many animals did not recognize the boundaries of the self like we do?

Though the process of natural selection demands animals place their own needs above others’, social animals present a bit of a snag in the evolutionary machine. How can organisms compete to survive, yet simultaneously arrange themselves in a cooperative group? The science of animal behavior has generally assumed that supposed altruism comes in two flavors: kin selection and social bonding. Basically, animals do things for others out of instinctual concern for their own genes in relatives (kin selection) or to pay into a social bank to reap rewards from their comrades later (social bonding). While this description does a lot to explain apparent altruism from a functional standpoint, it doesn’t do much to explain how the animals themselves view the interactions. Does a baboon think, “I’m going to groom my friend so he will groom me next Tuesday” or does he simply feel some instinctual urge to comb through his neighbor’s hair?

I think it’s pretty obvious that certain forms of life do not have much in the way of metaphysical awareness. Ants likely do no “view” themselves as anything, let alone individual members of a group. Their “thoughts” are probably more like electrical impulses that give explicit instructions like “turn right” and “search for food.” Ants operate much like an interconnected network of individually operating but interdependent bodies. They are closer to neurons in a brain than individuals in a community. But what if the experience of an ant wasn’t all that different from that of a baboon? What if, like ants, baboons didn’t always recognize each other as independent “selves?” The neurological limitations that exist in ants may not exist in baboons. Baboons likely have the full mental capacity to recognize their individual bodies and distinguish their intentions from those of other baboons. But perhaps the conditions under which baboon social structure evolved formed a much more malleable version of self than we currently experience in human society. Perhaps baboons waffle back and forth in their metaphysical capacities not because of a lack of intelligence but as a symptom of their social evolution.

Though my proposal is completely exploratory and hypothetical (I am not an evolutionary psychologist or and animal behaviorist), it does have interesting implications as a thought experiment. If other social animals operate on a different understanding of the “self,” or even operate without one at all, couldn’t we feasibly will our minds to do something similar? Weren’t we forged by the same evolutionary fires that gave us ants, dolphins, chimps, and baboons? Perhaps our obsession with ourselves—our identity, our emotional lives, our aspirations, our appearance—is not so much an innate product of intelligent life but a vestigial mental module from a time when we weren’t so reliant on others. And maybe it’s our individualistic culture that has simply fanned the flames of this obsession, ever widening the gap we perceive between our interests and others’.

Though it’s common knowledge in Buddhist and meditation circles that the temporary dissolution of the self is achievable through practice, I do not believe the general populace recognizes the availability of this experience. From the first day we come into contact with the world outside our mother’s womb, we are treated as individuals and taught to perceive and categorize the boundaries of other people and objects. To go against this conditioning is not merely a difficult task, but a mythical one. Many might assume the experience comes only from the ingestion of psychedelic drugs or in the midst of a psychological “break.” We are limited by what we believe is possible and we will never try to dissolve a boundary that we do not inherently recognize as optional. But billions of people experience what they would define as love for others every day. They make choices that prioritize others’ needs with or even over their own, and the others don’t always share their genes or reciprocate favors. Though the content of their thoughts may still be inherently “selfish,” it is possible that their concept of self has been warped by their interconnectivity with another person. Could it be possible for people to use their own observation of love for others to open the door to an experience they didn’t know was possible: an experience of self that does not end with the boundary of their skin?

 

 

Further reading on the subject of the self, Buddhism, animal behavior and evolutionary psychology:

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Waking Up by Sam Harris

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth

Categories: Animals, Culture, Humanity, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Instinct

Do you sense it?

The pervasive vibration that makes your insides cringe and reject all the love you think you’ve put in.

The putrid smell of failure, of crying, of trying but never holding on to all that you win.

The foul taste from the cup that you’d sworn was pristine.

The demons that hide, safe and quiet in your dreams, their shadows remaining though your mind is wiped clean.

The creeping sensation that there’s something you’ve missed.

That your life may not best be made with a clenched fist.

 

Categories: Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Woke AF (But Still Not Happy)

(Hey friends, I just wanted to put in a note that I wrote this post before the incredible tornado of dumpster fires that is Trump’s presidency began. It seems like I’m ignoring the very obvious truth that, in at least the U.S., everything is not in fact amazing. However, I think the concept of cultivating happiness in your own mind holds extra significance in tough times. So while this post lacks a little bit of temporal relevance, I hope you’ll still find its points useful.)

It’s amazing how I can walk through life with a personal philosophy bordering on nihilism yet still experience the effects of a generalized anxiety disorder. You’d think one would surely preclude the other. How can the mundane tasks of an ordinary day stress someone who sees the cosmic futility and overall unimportance of absolutely everything they do? This is just one of several great examples of the magic and mystery of the human brain.

The answer to this question answers several others, including but not limited to: Why don’t people take their own advice? How do I keep making the same mistakes? Why is it so difficult to choose to be happy?

In case you haven’t noticed, your brain is not your personal assistant. You do not hand it a list of tasks to complete, and it does not respond, “Roger that!” and get straight to work making your life easier. Your brain, while quite possibly being the most complex and advanced piece of biological equipment in the known universe, is still just a collection of reactionary components. It is designed, by natural selection, Mother Nature, God, whatever you want to call it, to respond to stimuli in order to keep you alive. The ability to conceptualize and enjoy the experiences with the world our brains give us is a special, and fairly recent (evolutionarily speaking), externality of this complexity. Yet this little footnote is the cornerstone of our world.

The ways in which the archaic machinery of our brains inhibits the enjoyment of “modern life” has been addressed ad nauseum by people far smarter than myself. For great reads on the subject, try Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by the surprisingly snarky neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky or Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. The first gets into the nitty gritty of how and why our brains mess with our health and lives, the second attempts to give strategies on how to fix this.

My intention is not to attempt to summarize the information in these books to tell you how to live better. My intention is to draw attention to the fact that information alone is not enough. To put a spotlight on how fucking hard it is to change your mind. Just like the hippies you meet at music festivals who complain about our political system yet can’t seem to stumble their way to a voting booth come November, seeing the cracks doesn’t always lead to trying to fix them.

In most forms of schooling we’re taught to learn and regurgitate pertinent information. If you’re one of the lucky people with a sticky brain, some flashcards are all you need to push concepts past recognition and into the filing cabinets of your brain. Others absorb information more like temporary tattoos, the details pristine when the sponge is removed, but fading in the days that follow. Regardless of how easily you remember mathematical theorems and Latin names, attempting to change the very nature of your mind is more like the second model. No matter how long you soak that Lisa Frank kitten, or how delicately you pull off the paper, you’re not going to get much more than a week out of that sucker.

Learning something, even digesting information on a deep, contemplative level does not directly lead to manifesting it. Just because you intellectually know something to be true does not mean your reality changes to reflect this fact. This is why dreams, psychedelic experiences, and pain do not disappear once you realize they are constructs of your neurology, rather than realities being imposed directly on you by the outside world.

Your reality is produced by your brain. At first glance, this can be a freeing notion. If our brains produce our individual realities and we are in control of our brains, we all must be free to design our own realities. This is the premise on which Buddhists build the capacity to resist suffering, enduring severe pain and discomfort without so much as a shudder. But for all of us who haven’t made it to Buddhist monk status, the realization that your brain constructs your reality can be the opposite of freeing. More than likely, it means you are at the mercy of the predispositions of an undisciplined mind. It means you can be surrounded by beauty, comfort, and love yet still feel empty and alone.

In other words…

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Louie always says it better.

Recently, I found myself at odds with a philosophy I had adopted in full: don’t give advice you don’t already follow. Essentially I’m scared of being a hypocrite. I can’t tell someone to avoid packaged foods if I ate a nutrigrain bar the other day. I can’t tell someone they should start meditating regularly when I’m lucky if I get to it a couple times a month. How dare I tell someone to reduce their dependency on drugs when I’m generally on two cups and a bowl a day.

What made me realize the problem in this philosophy was, strangely enough, Krav Maga. During a training drill, I was told to correct my partner’s form. My partner had been coming to class longer than I had, her form wasn’t perfect but it was sure as hell better than mine. It was like my entire mind hit a wall; I literally couldn’t correct her. Our instructor threatened us with pushups if he didn’t hear constructive criticism coming from every pair. I panicked. Finally I blurted out, “Widen your stance a little, and pivot more at the hips.” To my anxious brain’s shock and dismay, my partner responded with, “Oh! Right!” and repositioned herself for the next flurry of jabs and crosses. Really? No calls of hypocrisy. No eye rolls? No wordless facial communicating of “this bitch”? Why would this person take advice from a novice? Because like it or not, her stance was too narrow and she was not pivoting at the hips enough. Facts are facts, regardless of who communicates them. And facts help make people better.

Does this revelation make it any easier to criticize my partners in class? Fuck no. Just knowing a fact does not immediately change your behavior to align with it. And this is the whole point of this seemingly aimless, rambling anecdote. Just because you see the realities of your life and the surrounding universe, does not mean that change immediately follows. Changing the way you perceive and interact with the world around requires diligent, constant, and often difficult mental action.

I see this evidenced so clearly in my dealings with introversion and social anxiety. Logically, I know people care far more about what’s going on in their own lives than what comes out of my mouth. Yet I still find myself acting as if others’ opinions of me change drastically in response to every small thing I say or do. I also behave as if the opinions of strangers and loose acquaintances actually affect me when, logically, I also know this to be false.

The problem is that your brain gets wired a certain way by genetics, the way you are raised, and your experiences as you grow into adulthood. If you were taught impeccable manners by your parents after inheriting a predisposition for generalized anxiety, you may end up stuck in these thought patterns (like me). You may have created a negative feedback loop with yourself in grade school, where you perceived situations as going better the more you worried and planned for them, rewarding your brain for debilitating over-activity.

Sadly, the pathways created by repeat behaviors and cycles of reward centers in your brain are much easier to create than to break (for more on this see Hardwiring Happiness). Thus, forcing your brain to actually align it’s responses with new information you’ve gained about the world, instead of with what it already thought it knew, is like trying to walk in immaculate tall grass instead of a flattened deer path. You must consciously focus on lifting your legs higher than you normally would and pay attention to where you are setting them down. To change the way you think, and thus feel, you must constantly acknowledge and often redirect your own thoughts.

I want people to understand that there is really no such thing as “enlightenment.” Sure, those Buddhist monks have their shit pretty together, and it’s not likely they’ll relapse into anxiety-ridden, caffeine-guzzling westerners anytime soon. But the idea of being enlightened (or my current favorite shorthand phrase, “woke as fuck”) is that it implies stasis. It gives the impression that once you figure out how your mind works and how to control it, you’ve unlocked the achievement and life is smooth-sailing from then on. Instead, I want people to realize that taking on the endeavor of being self-aware is a lifelong commitment to a very complex game. It’s a game that feels like work and can often be exhausting. And it’s a game in which you will never stop racking up points and those points will never be enough. But it also may be the only game worth playing.

Categories: Humanity, Lifestyle, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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