I express my thanks to Robert Wright from Princeton University whose lectures inspired this article.
We have two characters: Helen, a girl, and Blossom, a monkey. Both are not Buddhists but both represent the carbon based lifeforms that passed through similar development stages and have the same (or alike) coping mechanisms. First of all, I would clarify two important points: 1) Any species other than humans or monkeys can be introduced here whether a crocodile in the Nile valley, or a white bear, or a dor beetle. The below-described mechanisms apply to most of the species on Earth. 2) I am not a supporter of Darwin’s evolution theory, yet my article concerns the mechanisms which are commonly attributed to the natural selection. Ethology has numerous examples to compare the human behaviour to how animals behave but we would not over-elaborate these issues in this article. Let us accept it as an undeniable and clear fact: we all have instincts needed for the life-saving and reproduction.
Four Noble Truths by Buddha and our main characters
- There is suffering. That is how the First Noble Truth is often translated for every man though Buddhists insist on a wider understanding of suffering adding «dissatisfaction», «discomfort», «anxiety». A modern man can easily imagine such a poignant combination. Our characters are no exception. Blossom is used to sleeping in uncomfortable trees, hiding on the slightest noise, worrying about the food and the offspring.
The point is, the discomfort is crucial for Blossom’s survivability. She saw a snake once, and then all the day she leaped aside even from lianas hanging around. As regards the instincts, the risk is worth taking: even if Blossom leaps aside from safe objects 99 times in a row, then doing so the 100th time as she meets a real snake, Blossom’s life would be saved! She would survive and carry on her blood.
How does Helen do? She lives in a fine flat, she has a stable job, her fridge is full of food and any stressful events are hardly probable. Still, Helen acts on instincts, too: she watches TV, reads news, listens to gossips and complaints of her friends. So the instinct starts to «save» her: Helen would worry about her work, or about a car that might hit her. Helen would postpone her long-hoped-for holiday because a TV news report frightened her to air-travel. Helen is also afraid of her boyfriend to leave her, a situation that occurred with a friend of hers recently. Helen is afraid of her clothes and her phone being out of fashion for people would turn away from her (in the wild, it is equated with the death). And now, Helen turns to take no advantage of the blessings of civilization and her life is nothing more peaceful than Blossom’ life or even more difficult.
- The Second Noble Truth is there is the origin of suffering, which is the attachment to desire.
Blossom sits on a high tree and notices another tree with juicy trees far away from her. Blossom wants these fruits! Blossom is not hungry now, she had just refreshed herself with some bananas. There is a perilous path to that unexplored tree: there are predators, another home ranges… All in all, she is not sure she saw fruits there! It could be colorful birds or bright flowers. But… the instincts get control over her! Her organism receives a good strong dose of dopamine! So Blossom forgets that fruits are only enjoyable as long as she eats them while the risk is huge! She sets out…
Why does Blossom need this instinct? It helps her find better places. If dopamine hit her the moment she tried delicate fruits, she would not want to get to them. If this mechanism did not launch when an animal (or a human) was full and safe, it would be exposed to malnutrition (it does not want to eat – it already ate something!), to staying in an area where food can run low (if each monkey takes a banana, there will be no bananas left), and so on. Scientists discovered things even more incredible: once Blossom gets to that appetizing fruit tree, she would be happy to eat a fruit (get a dose of dopamine). She would be glad to get another one but not that glad as before (she gets less dopamine) and so on. Finally, she would get used to eating these fruits (the dopamine level is regular). It makes sense to assume that when the fruits come to an end, Blossom would not get very upset. Nothing of the kind! She would be mad because the dopamine level is lower than the regular one! This would make Blossom look for new trees and get into the dopamine cycle again and again.
And Helen? The mother nature did not suggest that chocolate sweets grow on trees! Helen eats one sweet and gets the same dopamine injection and… at some point, she gets in a huff for she has no sweets and got excess weight! You can imagine anything else instead of the sweets like watching a TV series in the evening («Stinkeroo and that’s all», Helen thinks but keeps watching and gets angry should they show sports instead), a telephone («I used to have a smartphone, why should I have a black-and-white dialer?»), her wages (This work kills me! They offer me a position with flexible hours where I would work less but get less money. This is totally not for me»). Likewise, Helen looks for a «fruit tree» and if she finds it, she would ignore the risks and would not understand that this is a passing desire and there might be tragic consequences. For example, Helen looks for new positions while her current one is her dream. She looks for a purse on sale that costs her two wages even discounted (so she goes on tick to buy it, the dopamine injection is the reason!). To say nothing of a handsome man smiling at her… So, we are thumbs-down on this instinct, too.
And here goes the Third and the Fourth Noble Truth which seem to express the revolt against nature and the instincts.
- There is the end of suffering and desires (the Nirvana). We agreed on the instincts to help Blossom survive but they make Helen’s life harder. The girl probably succeeded in taming her instincts (depending on how intelligent she is). More probably, fighting them takes too much energy. The good news for her is that Buddhism says it is possible, at least in some aspects of life, to end the suffering.
- There is the Eightfold Path, or the Middle Way (that frees from suffering). The path includes eight steps to developing Helen’s moral and mentality:
1. Right View;
2. Right Aspiration;
3. Right Speech;
4. Right Action;
5. Right Livelihood;
6. Right Effort;
7. Right Mindfulness;
8. Right Concentration.
Helen probably followed some of these steps. For example, she tried not to gossip and not to support people gossiping, she did not backbite, tried not to deceive and not to use swear words. Though, she has problems with the right mindfulness – the last thing at night, she would run the events over in her head, replay the situations and rebuke herself for the mistakes. Helen should follow the Eightfold Path in full because the choice is something that makes a human different from an animal. The human himself is the choice! Remember about it, especially when you come across the living creatures in need.
The 8th rule is worth paying special attention: the right concentration, i.e. meditation, is no longer an attribute of Buddhism solely. It is a great way to «clean» your head from the thoughts and emotions generated by the instincts, to look at your life, your problems from a totally different angle – to see them more clearly and to face misfortune in a less emotional way. Meditation is an altered state of mind, a special way to deeply concentrate and reflect, it is a great helper both in therapy and self-analysis. Meditation benefits our health in general; in particular, it improves the heart rate, metabolism, breathing, as well as suppresses the default mode of brain function network (default neural network) that is responsible for making us suffer.
Author Iuliia Shender
Translator Nataly Bondarenko