It’s now two weeks into the Buddhism and Modern Psychology course, and I’ve been watching the videos here and there when I find the time. (I first mentioned this course in my Buddha vs Freud post.) I love hearing speakers who present ideas in ways that make me think! I even have to pause the video at times to write down thoughts and notes. (If only I’d been this into my classes during high school.)
One of the first ideas that caught my attention was during the initial compare/contrast of the foundations. I had not previously thought of Buddhism as a sort of rebellion against natural selection, and the way our brains have evolved for our survival. We arrive on the planet wired for all of those ruminating thoughts and anxieties about our jobs, relationships, and the pursuit of instant gratification. (Hello, free 2-day shipping!)
Buddhism teaches that it is our misperceptions about reality that cause suffering and unhappiness. For instance, our natural attachment to objects, people and situations, cause unhappiness when lost, despite the reality that nothing is permanent. When we get fired, broken up with, stuck in traffic, we get upset because we are very attached to our notions of how things are ‘supposed’ to happen. (I know like me, you’re thinking, “Well, YEAH!”)
Why do we even have to get stressed out? How is that good for us? Isn’t natural selection supposed to weed out those things that are not beneficial? Yea, but stress, fear and worry are historically useful things for humans. If we weren’t so attached as a species to our survival, we would likely not work as hard at finding food, running from predators, looking both ways in the street, or any of the activities that keep us alive.
Our brains have evolved to makes us feel fear at the slightest hint of a threat.
~What if I said something stupid and everyone thinks I’m an idiot?
~What if the company has lay-offs?
~I heard a noise in the dark, what if it’s a burglar?
~Some leaves rustled, what if it’s a snake?
As Mr. Wright points out in the course, these worries are a good thing, from the standpoint of natural selection. Being fearful and alert for threats keeps us alive, even if 9 times out of 10, it’s a false alarm. Better safe, than sorry.
In our modern, everyday lives, when we are not running from cheetahs or taxi drivers, all that fear and fretting does is make us miserable. When the adrenaline and cortisol stress hormones are on 24/7, it’s not great for our physical health either.
In a nutshell, the Buddhist prescription for the end of suffering and unhappiness, is to stop believing what is not true. See reality clearly for what it is. This is a difficult thing to do, as it’s something for which we are not ‘designed’. For instance, it’s hard to not react to a masshole driver who tailgates so closely, it sounds like he’s dropping all his R’s in my backseat. However, the foundation of Buddhist philosophy, known as the “Four Noble Truths”, sets out a path toward that end.
Maybe we won’t all end up perfectly enlightened and Zen throughout every moment of our lives, like smiling, blissful monks. But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as Voltaire cautioned. Everyone wants to be happy and have a good life. Any amount of improvement, no matter how small, is a good thing!
If we can increase our happiness through our own self-improvement, it will have a ripple effect that extends beyond our own lives, and reach everyone around us with whom we come into contact. Especially with those closest to us. Consideration and kindness are contagious. Like happy germs.