Getting off the Hedonic Treadmill: Buddhism

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As humans we spend most of our lives in a state of perpetual craving and desire. We land a big promotion at work, but soon fantasize about continuing to move up the corporate ladder. We become consumed by discontent and dissatisfaction as we constantly compare our social standing to that of our peers.  Wealth, status and power are engrained in our cultural ethos. However, all these pursuits are elusive. The temporary pleasure that we receive from these aims quickly fades as we relentlessly try to fill the void.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the ‘hedonic treadmill’ (also known as the hedonic adaptation).  The concept states that despite the events we experience (positive or negative), we always revert back to our ‘baseline’ level of contentment or happiness. While we may feel initial euphoria after experiencing something pleasurable, diminishing returns kicks in and we soon crave for more. Look at the surprising fortune of lottery winners. Many think that if only I could I win the lottery than surely all my problems could be solved. They imagine this would enable them to live a carefree life of eternal bliss. Despite these fantasies, this reality is quite different. One study demonstrated that lottery winners were not any happier than those who did not win the lottery 18 months after wining. The excitement and dopamine rush that you once felt when you won soon fades. Moreover, the grand lifestyle that you become accustomed to inhibits you from finding joy in the everyday mundane aspects of life. The same is true of attaining other milestones in life such as winning a championship or getting a promotion.

Yuval Noah Harari summarizes this sentiment in his book Sapiens,

When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things such as pain. As long as pain continues we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify.

As I argued in my previous article, our desire for pleasure makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  Humans need a signal to motivate them to ensure their survival, to eat, to reproduce  pass on their genes to the next generation.  Yet our inability to detach from pleasure and our longing for more is one of the main causes of human misery. It is synonymous to being on a treadmill, running faster and faster, yet going nowhere.

So the question remains – how does one end this cycle of discontent and get off the ‘hedonic treadmill’? One piece of wisdom comes from the Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. He taught that we ought to accept things as they are without craving. Refrain from immediate intuitive judgements about our experience, and let things be as they will be. For instance, if we experience something pleasant be cognizant of the fleeting nature of this emotion and do not be distressed when it passes.

To achieve this state of mind the Buddha developed a set of mediation techniques which were aimed at allowing one to be aware of the contents of their consciousness and focus on the present moment. While it comes in many forms the most common form of meditation is ‘mindfulness meditation’ in which one pays attention to their present experience using the breath as an anchor. One will quickly realize the inherent chaos and noise in their minds. In meditation the task is straight forward, acknowledge the thought and return back to the breath. However, as many who have attempted meditation know it is far too easy to get distracted and lost in thought.

What this practice allows us to do is to detach from our thoughts, emotions and yearnings. It enables us to see the futility of our efforts to intensify or extend pleasure. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal of these meditation techniques is to achieve a state called ‘enlightenment’.  Enlightenment is a state of mind in which an individual is liberated from the ego, the constant ‘mental chatter’ and from the cognitive and emotional distortions that are so pervasive in our day to day experience. As Joseph Goldstein states, it is “the mind of non-clinging, non-fixation, nonattachment to anything at all. It’s the mind of open groundlessness.” Attaining enlightenment doesn’t require us to achieve a particular goal or chase after an experience. Rather, it is available to us when our minds are grounded in the present moment, and we are liberated from our ego.

Going forward, I will refrain from discussing the metaphysical or religious aspects of Buddhism, but focus mainly on the key aspects of the Buddhist doctrine from a naturalistic or scientific paradigm. Moreover, I want to demystify these concepts and ideas and ground them in the scientific literature.  In in my next article I will focus on what science is saying about mindfulness meditation.

Till next time,

AA

Beyond the Individual: Inquiries into our Different Selves

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Who am I?

At first this seems like a pretty basic and trivial question.

I surely know what I am, right?

But the more I look into the matter, the more skeptical I become of a stable or fixed idea of the self. For instance, I could tell you that I am synonymous with my body, and provide you with all the details of my physical appearance. However, this description is elusive at best. As I age my body and its attributes are continually in a state of change – a state of flux. In a matter of months, billions of cells in my body will die and be replaced.

Being disappointed with that inquiry, I then turn to my personality, my character or disposition. I find that my identity and character traits are much more fluid and malleable than I once thought. That is, my personality is context dependent. I find myself to behave uniquely in different social settings. I almost become a different person when I am with my friends as opposed to my family or at work.

Frustrated and in dismay, in one last final attempt, I look at evidence for psychological continuity examining my mind, memories and subjective day-to-day experience. Yet, again I find myself disappointed.

Our memories aren’t as reliable as I once thought.  As psychologist Bruce Hood demonstrates in his book The Self Illusion, memories aren’t like fixed pieces of information stored in a computer hard drive. Rather, they are in a continual state of reorganization, becoming immersed and weaved into new experiences. They are ‘edited’ to assist us in telling coherent narratives and making sense of the world.

As Bruce Hood explains,

Our identity is the sum of our memories, but it turns out that memories are fluid, modified by context and sometimes simply confabulated. This means we cannot trust them, and our sense of self is compromised.

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood

Buddhism: No-Self

The Buddhist doctrine of anatta posits that there is no concrete or unchanging self that we possess or carry throughout our day-to-day experience. Our bodies, personality and mind are constantly in a state of change. Nothing within us or in the outside world is permanent. Attempting to cling onto a static identity is like trying to grasp onto water.

For Buddhists, all that exists are fleeting moments of consciousness or mental states, passing by like water flowing continuously in a river. 

The contemplative exercise of meditation can help us further understand this notion. During meditation, one is asked to turn their attention to the breath. As mental sensations, emotions and thoughts arise, one gradually learns to detach and watch them as they fade away. Through this practice we come to an understanding that we do not amount to our thoughts.

Rather than identifying with our thoughts, we become a witness or objective observer.

Further experienced meditators note that the feeling of having an internal narrator to our experiences in our minds is just another illusive mental state that arises in consciousness that we can perceive and let go of. That is, the feeling of having a self or an ‘I’ can disappear as well.

 As Sam Harris notes in his book Waking Up,

For most people experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness requires considerable training. It is, however, possible to notice that consciousness that in you which is aware of your experience in this moment – does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I”. What you are calling “I” is itself a feeling that arises out of the contents of consciousness. Consciousness is prior to it, a mere witness to it, and therefore, free of it in principle.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris

The Social Self

Think of the myriad of ways that you are influenced by your external environment. Your work, friends, family and hobbies all leave an imprint on who you are, and who you become. Sociologist Charles Cooley developed the term the ‘looking glass self’ to describe how we mold ourselves to fit the opinions or expectations of others. We often see this phenomenon in the case of celebrities who put on a public persona or ‘mask’ in the public eye while disclosing what they are truly like in their private life.

Cooley’s thesis can be distilled into the following esoteric passage, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

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This begs the question, if our character and disposition is always adapting to different social environments, is there a ‘core’ or true identity one holds onto throughout their life?

Exploring the fluidity and interconnectedness between ourselves and others, Virginia Woolf looks at this concept in her wonderful experimental novel The Waves. Weaving through the internal monologues and soliloquies of six distinct characters, Woolf forces the reader to contemplate how we are defined by our relationships. For Woolf, boundaries are permeable, and the distinction between you and ‘I’ is not always clear.

Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf

Self as a Dynamic Network

As I’ve argued throughout this article, the self can’t be reduced to a single homogenous entity. It is more like a dynamical system or network changing over time. As philosopher Kathleen Wallace claims in her book The Network Self, we are comprised of interconnected and interdependent traits from different domains of our lives, including those from our social relations, family relationships and biological dispositions.

We may identify with some traits more than others, while some characteristics may become more salient in specific social contexts. For instance, in a work networking event our identity may be strongly linked to our occupation whereas in other situations being a parent may take precedence at a family birthday party.

Further, our physical appearance and personalities are not static as they continually evolve throughout our lives. We may become radically different people at 50 as opposed to when we were 15.  As Kathleen Wallace suggests, the network self accounts for our changing character throughout our lifetime.

The network self is changeable but continuous as it maps on to a new phase of the self. Some traits become relevant in new ways. Some might cease to be relevant in the present while remaining part of the self’s history. There’s no prescribed path for the self. The self is a cumulative network because its history persists, even if there are many aspects of its history that a self disavows going forward or even if the way in which its history is relevant changes.

The Self is Not Singular but a Fluid Network of Identities, Kathleen Wallace

Implications

Viewing the self as something that is dynamic and fluid, allows us to transcend cultural stereotypes which often pin us down to a reductive single trait.

As opposed to solely identifying with one’s cultural ethnicity, we can start to break down barriers finding commonalities with others rather than focusing on our differences. This is not to say that we shouldn’t prioritize or value some identities over others, but it is to argue that we are more interesting, complex and nuanced than a single label or category.

Perhaps this can be a first step in addressing the rigidity of positions espoused in the current ‘culture wars.’

Lastly, looking at the self as a continually evolving interdependent system provides us with a degree of liberation. We are not required to cling onto a certain conception of ourselves affording us the possibility of change and transformation.

Thus, we can break free of the self-imposed cages we put ourselves in and truly be free.

You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago

Alan Watts

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A Mindful Approach to Uncertainty: An Interview with Mindfulness Teacher Paula Vital

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So much of our lives in spent trying to plan for the future and control the outcomes of events. We meticulously schedule our time expecting everything to unfold just as how we imagined.

Then 2020 came – the year of uncertainty. We realized that the world is indifferent to our preferences and desires. So how can we remain grounded and put things into perspective in this chaotic time?


I met Paula through the mindfulness program at my work, and reached out to her thoughts and insights on how mindfulness can help us deal with many of the challenges we face today.   

Paula Vital is an award-winning coach, speaker and writer dedicated to helping you move from striving to thriving by accessing the power of the present moment.  A lawyer by training and senior advisor in the Ontario Public Service, Paula is very familiar with the challenges of balancing a stressful work-life with time for family and self-care. 

Paula has been involved in health and wellness for over 20 years, and is a certified yoga teacher, Body Flow instructor, National Fitness instructor, and avid mindfulness practitioner and coach.

Paula has completed Levels I and II of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training, has two yoga certifications (Classical Hatha and Vinyasa), attended numerous silent meditation retreats, and studied with world-renowned yoga and meditation teachers such as Sharon Salzberg, Phillip Moffitt, Stephen Cope and Michael Stone.  She is in the process of becoming an Internationally Certified Yoga Therapist (IAYT 2021).

Paula is committed to finding joy and balance in her own life and helping others to do the same.

You can learn more about her work through her free course of 3 Minute Meditations: 3 Minutes to Your Greatest Self on her website, www.livethepresent.ca.

  1. How did you first learn about and begin practicing meditation and other contemplative practices?

I was a lawyer on Bay Street and after having worked so hard to achieve that, I felt disappointed and let down by the experience. 

My whole life I had spent chasing after the next achievement, and eventually began to realize that no matter what I gained in the outside world – job success, travel, material goods, even relationships – there was nothing that was bringing me a true sense of contentment and satisfaction.

Luckily my sister meditated – and I thought that was so weird!  Why sit and do nothing when there is so much to DO!!!

But I ran out of options and got curious.  Together we did a course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, based on the Jon Kabat-Zinn model.  During that course, I realized that there is value in just Being, and that I am more than my thoughts. 

This insight was revolutionary!  If I am more than my thoughts, and my thoughts are not always true or helpful, then who or what am I?

This was in 2006, and I have spent my life since that point exploring, and eventually teaching, that very question.  Once we can observe our thoughts without judgment, we realize our unlimited and interconnected nature, tapping into and endless wellspring of love, compassion and joy.

2. What changes have you noticed since you began practicing meditation?

My whole perspective on life is completely different!

I used to spend my days planning for the future and tackling my To-Do list, never feeling completely satisfied and always feeling rushed, and that I had not done enough.

Now, my only job is to reconnect with the present moment and the one that is observing the whole thing.  I then take one small action at a time and do it with complete love and surrender, to the best of my ability. 

Turns out that when we worry less about outcomes and relax our expectations about the future, a beautiful future unfolds effortlessly.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

3. The concept of ‘Acceptance’ or ‘Surrender’ is commonly discussed amongst spiritual practitioners such as Eckart Tolle. What does this idea mean to you?

We have no control over the outcomes of our actions.  We have full control over our intention and the actions that we take in the present moment.  Surrender is to let go of the fruits of your action, but completely devote yourself to bringing your full energy and heart to each and every moment.

Surrender also involves checking in at a deep level to see which is the correct action to take in each moment.  This requires practice and an increasingly deepening connection to the stillness or witness within. Your very own wisdom.

4. We are living in times of uncertainty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us know family, friends and loved ones who have been impacted. Further, we don’t quite know when we will get ‘back to normal.’ What advice do you have to stay grounded during this time?

  • Have compassion for yourself.  This is a very difficult time!  Just getting up, getting dressed and getting through the day is an accomplishment.  Congratulate yourself for this.
  • Develop a very simple but nourishing self-care practice.  It could be a walk in nature, 5 minutes of deep breathing, a mindful cup of tea, or some gentle stretches… whatever makes you feel cared for.  Take care of yourself, and everything else will unfold.
  • Connect with another being in some way.  If you live alone, consider adopting a pet.  Human beings thrive on connection.  If you can’t see other people in person, find ways to connect online that are meaningful to you.  Write a letter.  Start a blog.  Whatever will get you in touch with the reality that we are never alone. Turn loneliness into solitude by recognizing your inherent interconnectedness with all beings.

5. Some have looked at this time as an opportunity critically look at how we were living prior to the pandemic and make broader societal changes. How can we create a more beautiful world after the pandemic? What changes do you hope to see?

There is always something to learn from difficult situations.  Here is what I have learned so far from Covid-19.

  • Working with uncertainty is a very helpful skill.  We can practice this in heaps right now.  We don’t know what tomorrow (or the next hour) will bring… how can we let go of the need to know and just enjoy what is already here?  My mother is dying, and each day that I am able to be with her I feel so blessed.  If we are breathing, there is more right with us than wrong with us.  Covid provides an opportunity to recognize this.
  • We go too fast.  In the pre-Covid days, we were all rushing here and there.  Rush rush rush. Never enough time.  For some of us, the cancellation of everything (and the realization that anything can be cancelled!) gave us a much needed breather and an opportunity to sloooooow down… slow is good.
  • Flexibility is the key to continuing to make a contribution.  I have needed to learn much more technology than I am comfortable with, and had to homeschool my kids while working during a large chunk of the pandemic.  I tend to enjoy plans, routines and structures, and while I still had these they often went out the window with crying and fighting children or zoom calls that dropped.  I learned to have a sense of humour and trust that things don’t need to be perfect.  I can adapt, we can work together, and somehow we will get through it all.  Working from home has been a huge gift to me as well!
  • Connections, connections, connections.  It is so easy to feel lonely and overwhelmed in this scary and unpredictable world.  But we are not alone!  We are all in this together, literally the whole world!!!  I have found ways to connect with teachers that I could only have dreamed of learning with as they now have offerings online, found a new yoga studio I never would have gone to as it is far away (but now virtual!), and cherished my friends and family and our loving connections, whether distanced or online.  Nothing is more important than our relationships, and Covid has taught us that.

Hopefully our post-Covid world will not forget these lessons of relaxing with uncertainty, slowing down, staying flexible, and connecting with others. And of course the environmental benefits!!!  May those continue!!!

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

6.  Lastly, any final thoughts, books, articles etc. you would like to share?

Self-Compassion – Kristin Neff

When Things Fall Apart – Pema Chodron

Full Catastrophe Living – Jon Kabat-Zinn

We have no control over the outcomes of our actions.  We have full control over our intention and the actions that we take in the present moment.  Surrender is to let go of the fruits of your action, but completely devote yourself to bringing your full energy and heart to each and every moment.

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