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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Expanding Circles: Spiritual Exercises as a Bridge Towards Cosmopolitanism

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In previous posts in this series, I looked at how interconnected we all are in a single global ecosystem. As noted by the philosopher Aristotle, humans are ‘social animals’ who exist and thrive in communities. We have the ability to devise sophisticated institutions enabling us to co-operate with others across cultures and borders.

We can see how interwoven our lives all are through the complex interdependencies in our economies, societies and in the natural environment. As humans, we exist in broader networks and are involved in systems and feedback loops at the local, national and global level. Further, we are immersed in interdependent and reciprocal relationships with the outside world as we both shape and are shaped by our external environment.

In this article I will look at philosophies and spiritual exercises which can expand one’s perspective helping us go beyond our narrow self-interest and embody a cosmopolitan worldview.

Stoic Ethics: Oikeiōsis

The Stoics developed a system of ethics based on two key premises deduced from human behavior:

  1. Humans have the capacity for reason through our ability for critical thinking and self-reflection. We can plan for the future and can think abstractly, devising systems of thought which stretch beyond our immediate sensory experience.
  2. In comparison to other species, we are highly social creatures who depend on mutual co-operation and assistance from others to survive. This is especially true as newborns – think of how dependent we are on our mothers\caregivers for our growth and survival. Some unique features of humans separating us from other animals include the development of language, culture and the division of labor, all pointing towards our inclination towards social living.  

The concept of oikeiōsis, which roughly translates to ‘appropriation’ or ‘familiarization’, is the idea of gradually treating the concerns of others as our own. The Stoics notion of ethical development, was based upon using our capacity of reason to continually expand our care towards more and more people.

The Circles of Hierocles

The second century Stoic Hierocles put forth a model which links human development and our capacity for reason with ethical development and expanding circles of care.

Starting as infants, we are highly instinctual and therefore our self-interest is limited towards our own self-preservation. However, as we grow and develop as children, our oikeiōsis expands towards our family and caregivers with the realization that our wellbeing is tied to theirs.

Hierocles develops this logic to gradually empathizing and sympathizing with more distant individuals including our community, fellow citizens and eventually humanity as a whole.  

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Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci further explains how reason enables us to expand our circles of concern in his blog Figs in Winter,

 When we reach the age of reason, around 7 to 8 years old, and continuously thereafter, we begin to apply our reflective thinking to further extend the process, realizing that other people, who are not related or otherwise close to us, are essentially like us, with similar wants, needs, worries, and so forth. The wise person, extrapolating the process of oikeiôsis to its logical outer limit, would then feel “at home” not just with relatives, friends, and fellow townspeople, but with humanity at large.

Oikeiôsis: how to feel at home in the world,  Massimo Pigliucci

In breaking down the barriers of identity and finding commonality with others, the Stoics align themselves with the famous sentiment expressed by Socrates who claimed to be a ‘a citizen of the world’.   

Buddhism:  Mettā Meditation

One may object to the idea of cosmopolitanism stating that humans are also inherently tribal and favor the well-being of our tribe or culture at the expense of those who are different from us. As Jonathan Haidt notes, our moral systems both ‘bind and blind.’

Although I don’t disagree with Haidt, I do think nonetheless we can overcome our tribalistic tendencies and move towards greater altruism through continual spiritual practice.

The Buddhist exercise of mettā meditation (loving kindness), which aligns closely with the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, is something that can be put into practice to increase our capacity for altruism. The practice begins with the meditator visualizing someone close to them and repeating a mantra to wish the person in their mind’s eye safety, security and happiness. The meditator then repeats this process as they continue repeating the mantra extending their sympathies to someone they think of as ‘neutral’ and then eventually someone who they have a hostile relationship with.

The goal of mettā meditation is for one to see the common humanity in everyone, regardless of our relationship to another. This has similarities with the golden rule found in so many religious/spiritual traditions of ‘treating others how we would like to be treated.’ This of course is difficult, especially with those who we think of as our enemies. However, like anything worthwhile, it requires repetition as we will gradually see positive results.[1]

The Pale Blue Dot

In the final analysis, all of us humans occupy one planet – a tiny blue marble orbiting the sun in a vast cosmos. We are finite mortal beings who one day will all meet our end. The petty concerns that ruminate in our minds throughout the day are likely trivial.

So in the short time that we do have here, is it really productive to cling onto self-righteousness, anger or resentment?

It may be difficult to let go and see others as ourselves, but in our highly interconnected global community, it is definitely worth a try.

I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.

Widening Circles, Rainer Maria Rilke
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[1] Empirical studies showing the benefits of mettā /loving kindness meditation can be seen here: 18 Science-Backed Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness Meditation | Psychology Today Canada

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