Karma

Continuing on with my thoughts about Buddhist principles, it’s time for one of the biggies: karma.

Most Westerners grew up in an environment strongly influenced by monotheistic notions. This is true even for people not brought up to be “religious”. Thus, many Westerners see karma as some external source of “divine” justice doling out punishments and rewards based on the things you do. If, for example, you hurt somebody, some external force of fate will soon hurt you back in order to balance the books.

But this is a crude and materialistic idea. It requires a godlike something to maintain an ongoing ledger and to have the power of manipulating the universe to smack down people who deserve it. It also tacitly requires something like eternal life or reincarnation to make it work…because let’s face it, a lot of truly nasty people live fairly comfortable lives, whereas other people who haven’t done much wrong can be subject to horrible suffering. The only way to justify this with conventional notions of karma is to say that what you go through now may be influenced by something you did several lifetimes ago…and if you do bad things now, you’ll eventually get punished, maybe a dozen lifetimes down the line.

To be fair, this is exactly what some Buddhists believe. They would say that karma may not get you in this life, but it will hit you hard in the next or the one after that. However, I have trouble believing such an idea. I have trouble with reincarnation in general, even though people I respect completely believe in it.

So let me suggest a different take on karma: one based on plain old neurology.

When you choose to do something, you strengthen neural pathways in your brain so that the thing becomes easier to do again. When you repeatedly choose not to do something, the existing pathways in your brain for that action will gradually weaken.

That’s it. That’s the mechanism of karma. Nothing external. All internal.

When, for example, you give in to anger, you strengthen your mental pathways for giving in to anger. You make it more likely that you’ll give in again, with all the consequences that might follow. On the other hand, if you don’t give in to anger, you strengthen your ability to resist anger. Your “give in to anger” pathways will slowly weaken.

This doesn’t mean you’ll never get angry. It means you’re less likely to act on your anger. The Sanskrit word “karma” literally means “action”. The actions that you do or don’t take will strengthen or weaken your patterns of behavior.

Remember that in Buddhism, pain and suffering are two different things. You can feel pain without suffering, and you can suffer even when you aren’t in pain.

Greed, for example, is a cause of suffering because it’s an unwholesome fixation on getting something. You can’t stop thinking about it. You need it…and even if you get it, you want more. That’s suffering. And giving in to greed just makes things worse. It makes you more likely to give in to greed again in future…which leads to more fixation and more suffering.

Resisting greed helps you resist greed in future. Even better is cultivating more wholesome patterns of thought and behavior (good karma). If you counteract greed with generosity and feelings of gratitude for what you already have, you reduce any suffering from current greed and make future bouts of greed less likely.

So karma isn’t imposed from some external force. It’s a set of patterns you’ve built up inside you over the course of a lifetime. Unwholesome patterns make you fixate and suffer; wholesome ones loosen you up and (gradually) free you from fixation.

The ideal is eventually to have no karma: no automatic patterns of behavior running your life. You may still have unpleasant experiences—that’s part of what it means to be human, including your eventual death—but they just are what they are. You don’t add extra suffering to whatever pain comes along.

[The picture is the so-called “endless knot” often used to symbolize karma. By en:User:Rickjpelleg, first uploaded to en.wikipedia on 20:13, 28 October 2005 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.]

Denial

It’s been a while since I talked about Buddhist concepts, so let’s look at denial.

The Buddha observed that being in denial is a major source of unhappiness. If you ignore truths about yourself or the world, you end up out of sync with reality. This is a recipe for suffering—sooner or later, reality wins. So denial is a defense mechanism that’s guaranteed to fail eventually…at which point you have to face the truth anyway, or else double-down on denial which only puts you farther out on a limb.

Being in denial is often unconscious. Once in a while, we might recognize that we’re deliberately ignoring something important, but usually we suppress that recognition as quickly as possible. We distract ourselves with other things, or we tell ourselves stories to cover up or deflect uncomfortable feelings. And it’s certainly the case that sometimes we just aren’t ready to deal with some truth. It’s too raw, or we feel too battered to cope. It can be a mistake to confront something huge when we’re not ready.

So what to do? This is where meditation and meditative practices come in. There are many many forms of practice aimed at many many results…but in Buddhism, two types are especially important:

    1. Focusing and calming the mind. Left on its own, your brain hops all over the place; or maybe it goes round and round in circles; and sometimes it just zones out into numbness and blah.

      So the first meditative practice is almost always working to focus your mind on a single thing. You might focus on your breathing, or a sight or a sound or a repeated phrase…but always something simple. You practice doing that for longer and longer until you’ve trained your brain to focus and settle down.

      The classic metaphor is letting mud settle out from muddy water. Stay still long enough and the mud will go to the bottom, leaving the water clear.

    2. Once you can focus and set aside distractions, then you begin a different type of meditative practice: just watching your body and mind with awareness.

      Body awareness is enormously important. Some people think that meditation means denying your body, but we’ve already said that denial will mess you up. You aren’t trying to repress your body, you’re trying to feel it fully.

      So for example, if you find yourself bored, what does boredom feel like? Tension in certain places? Itches? Sleepiness? Restless thoughts? But the point is not to suppress any of your natural experience. Simply notice it and be aware, without making up any stories around it.

Building up awareness is your tool for avoiding denial. By increasing your awareness of body and mind, you eventually can notice when you’re lying to yourself. “I’m not angry!” (Then why are my shoulders so tense?) “I don’t care what he thinks!” (Then why have I spent the last ten minutes going around and around inside my head inventing ways to crush him in an argument I know we’ll never have?) “I didn’t mean anything, it was just a joke!” (Then why am I so fiercely insisting that she’s the one in the wrong for being offended?)

At the same time that you’re building up awareness, you’re building your capacity to face what’s what. As I said before, denial is a defense mechanism, and some people have gigantic burdens to defend themselves against. Meditation doesn’t make your problems smaller, but it makes your capacity for truth larger. Eventually, it may let you face anything (including the biggie: you and everyone you care about are going to die).

BUT NONE OF THIS IS EASY. The first time you try “focus meditation”, you’ll discover what Gandhi called Monkey Mind. Your thoughts skip all over the place, despite how much you try to focus them. Even after days, weeks, and months of practice, you can still get distracted sometimes. As for “awareness meditation”, that’s a lifetime of work. As soon as you become aware of some pattern of denial you’ve been caught in for years, you realize there’s another one just beneath it.

For this reason, it’s really helpful to find support: a teacher and/or a like-minded group of people who can keep you going, and also call you out when you go into denial about no longer being in denial…because it’s shockingly easy to lie to yourself at every step along a spiritual path. You can get stuck in comfortable ruts, or just as easily get stuck in ruts that aren’t comfortable but are familiar—patterns of behavior that you know aren’t helpful but you still fall back on anyway.

And getting stuck in ruts about meditation is just as easy as getting stuck in other patterns. You can believe you’re doing great paying attention to your body and mind, when really you’re just running through patterns on autopilot.

Speaking of patterns, this gets us to karma…but let’s leave that until next time.

[The picture of the couch at the top of this post is from the Wikipedia article on Denial. I believe it is Sigmund Freud’s couch. Freud was in denial about a great many things. Photo by ROBERT HUFFSTUTTER [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Models: Gotchas

Science is about making models. But models involve inclusion and exclusion. In the process, a particular model may leave out something vitally important. Then you’re in trouble.

One interesting example of this comes from geology. A hundred years ago, geological models left out all effects from living organisms. Geologists felt that the influence of life-forms was simply too small to have any noticeable impact. The biosphere was restricted to a very small slice of the planet, from a short distance up into the atmosphere to a short distance down into the crust. Life just didn’t make much difference to deep geological processes.

Oops.

We now know that life can have huge impacts on the planet. You’re probably thinking about human-made climate change, but that’s small potatoes compared to the Great Oxygenation event. 2.4 billion years ago, the rise of photosynthesizing algae completely changed the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, taking it from about 3% oxygen to our current 21%. Amongst many other effects, this oxygenation basically rusted all the iron exposed on Earth’s surface. We can tell all this from banded iron formations formed around that time. Before the event, there was plenty of raw iron in surface rocks. Afterward, you could only find iron oxides.

That’s just one example of the potential problems with models. Another example is the financial crisis that started around 2007. Economic models of the time simply ignored the possibility that banks and bank-like institutions (like hedge funds) might universally act like ass-hats: taking crazy risks and using dodgy investment vehicles to squeeze money out of the public, on the assumption that if everything blew up, world governments would bail them out.

Oops again.

It’s easy to say, “I’d be smarter than that,” but one of the basic principles of Buddhism is that we aren’t. The Buddhist claim is that we construct deluded models of ourselves. We say, “I’m this type of person,” or, “I always do this,” when the truth is that we change from moment to moment. We’re different around our parents than we are with our friends; we’re different at work than we are at home; we’re different when it’s sunny than when it’s raining. We can be furious one minute, then laughing the next. We may have general tendencies, but even those tendencies change with time and circumstance.

The Buddhist word for this is anatta: no permanent self. Whatever you think you are, you aren’t like that all the time. Any self-image you have is incomplete, and often dead wrong.

Ideally, you should give up trying to characterize your self and thinking of your self as a single unified thing. Instead, just try to be aware of what you are from moment to moment. Such awareness takes a ton of practice; it’s the reason that Buddhists meditate.

Eventually, you’ll recognize that you really don’t stay the same, not even over short periods of time. But that’s okay. Nothing stays the same. Be kind to yourself and others, and don’t try to grasp at any particular identity. It won’t work and it’ll just make you miserable.

[Picture of banded iron formation at Dales Gorge by Graeme Churchard from Bristol, UK, Uploaded by PDTillman) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: June 4, 2018

I’ve been reading Austin Kleon‘s “Show Your Work” again, and have been reminded of the value of sharing. So in that spirit, I’m going to try to do more blogging to share articles, books, etc. that I’ve been enjoying recently.

Article: Buddhists in Love
An interesting article on relationships. It also includes a nice introduction to some Buddhist principles, such as the idea of “No Permanent Self” which seems to perplex many people. (If you’re interested in more on this, ask me in the Comments section.)


Graphic Novel: Batman: Rules of Engagement
The Batman comic book is currently being written by Tom King, and I love what he’s doing with the character and the title. In case you don’t pay attention to comic books, Batman and Catwoman are now engaged and scheduled to be married in July. The collection I linked to above deals with various characters’ reactions to the engagement, including Cat and Bat going on a hilarious double date with Superman and Lois. It’s just lovely: well worth reading even if you haven’t looked at comic books for a while. (The link takes you to Comixology.com which lets you buy digital versions of comics immediately. You can also buy hardcopy versions from online vendors like Amazon, Chapters, B & N, etc. If you’re wary of spending money on comics, go to your local library—they probably have the book too.)

By the way, the book I’ve linked to is Volume 5 in King’s run on Batman. Volume 4 is also great, and I’m looking forward to Volume 6 when it comes out at the end of July.


Podcast: Hardcore History by Dan Carlin
Hardcore History is one of my favorite podcasts. It’s like a university lecture series on various historical events. The episodes are lengthy—some are as long as six hours—and Carlin himself would be the first to say they’re idiosyncratic. But they’ve certainly taught me a ton of things I never knew. I particularly recommend the series of episodes on World War I, titled “Blueprint for Armageddon”. The series will open your eyes and give you enormous respect for your great-great-grandparents.


That’s it for today. More links soon.

The Brain as a Sense Organ

In connection with my post on Writer’s Block, let me add a useful way to think about how your brain works.

It’s common in Buddhism to regard your brain as a sense organ, just like your eyes, ears, etc. This isn’t anything mystic; it’s simply an observation about similarities between thoughts and the five senses.

You only have partial control over your senses. For example, you only have partial control over what you hear. You can listen to specific music, you can avoid places that you expect will be noisy, and so on. Still, you can’t control everything: you hear every sound that reaches your ears. Inevitably, your ears will deliver sensations you don’t expect.

The same applies to the other four conventional senses. You see whatever is in front of your eyes, you smell whatever wafts into your nostrils, and so on. You can try to control your life’s circumstances, but you’ll always end up with surprises.

And the same applies to your brain. Your brain delivers thoughts, just like your eyes deliver visual input. You can partly control your thoughts, but only partly. Inevitably, your brain will serve up thoughts you don’t ask for, and maybe thoughts you don’t want.

We’ve all had the experience of walking down the street and suddenly remembering some embarrassment from long ago. We’ve also found ourselves having inappropriate thoughts, unkind thoughts, prejudiced thoughts, etc. At times like this, I find it useful to consider the brain as a sense organ. Just as our eyes sometimes show us sights we’d rather not see, our brain sometimes serves up thoughts we’d rather not have.

And that’s okay. We don’t have to think about such thoughts as us, any more than the things we see are us. The brain is not our complete identity; it does a lot of stuff without our input.

What matters isn’t some random thought we never asked for, but how we react to the thought. We have a great deal more control over our actions than we do over our thoughts.

Or at least that’s the goal. We sometimes have trouble controlling our actions too―we get caught up in emotion and do things we aren’t happy with. But that’s a topic for another time. (Hint: it’s related to the seven deadly sins.)