Part V, second instalment:
nb: If you’re newly arrived here, this won’t make a lot of sense without reading the previous article. If you have read that, a quick up-to-speed reminder: we were discussing what interposes itself between a person’s stated beliefs and values (armchair/”bloodless” philosophy) and what actually happens, or even what is perceived. Oh, and there were these “Four Noble Truths…” Oh, AND – I gave notice that my cultural references might lean towards the obscure and nerdy.
Remember the gruesome triplets? Lobha, Dhosa, Moha – Greed, Hatred and Delusion. The mental disturbances that we can observe popping up when we meditate [if not, then see Part IV, “Jedi Hobbit“]. Collectively we call these “kilesa”, by the way – usually translated as “defilement” although “mental affliction” might be more accurate. Anyway – once I became familiar with the Four Noble Truths, and compared this calm, realistic description of suffering and unsatisfactoriness with how I actually tended to respond to such things, I began to view my experiences in meditation as instructive microcosms of the forces acting on me in life.
In the bigger picture, just as kilesa could interpose themselves between my attention and the breath; they could equally get in the way of anything else I was trying to concentrate on, think about, act on, or even just perceive or experience. So, to reduce all problems to the underlying BIG problem (why do I suffer? And what should I therefore do about it?) I could view them as arising to patch over my denial of the First Noble Truth (that suffering just IS), and then infecting the second (why?), which then spreads to create warped versions of the third (can something be done about it?) and fourth (what?). Resulting in some kind of cock-a-mamie story that can usually be summarised: “My life should not contain suffering… but IT DOES! So what do I need to get, destroy, or lose myself in?”
In a bit more detail, what might such infected, or defiled “Ignoble Truths” look like? Let’s try mapping kilesa onto that structure, and see how they line up. Let’s try greed, I’ll start:
- I am suffering. [nb: added pronoun. That’s a big subject – which I’ll briefly touch on below]
- Why? Because I haven’t got THAT.
- I can make suffering stop – by getting it.
- So what do I do now?
- View – Life now appears to me to consist largely of: opportunities to get what I want, routes that might lead to opportunities, barriers that I have to circumvent or destroy. This is now how I see and imagine the world, and pursuit makes me feel alive – it is my purpose. If none of these things seem to be present, then I see a wasteland. I’m bored, unengaged, uninspired, or depressed.
- Thought – When my brain boots up in the morning, it soon starts turning over means, strategies, information, that might lead me to what I want. If very motivated, then I might also be trying to actively restructure my thinking, perhaps reading self-help books to “Think Like a Millionaire”, have a perfect relationship, pickup “artist” stuff – depending on what I’m after. Surround myself with inspirational quotes, until even my tea-towels tell me to “believe in your dream.”
- Speech – Will always be turning towards the desired object. Researching, prodding for clues and leads. Networking – sniffing out who else wants it too. Could you be an enabler? Ally? Rival? Or irrelevant. I may start to sort people into these kinds of categories – who is worth talking to and who isn’t. Who I should be polite to, or should assert dominance over, should try to impress, or should warn off from getting in my way, with a little snarl.
- Action – This isn’t just, “I’ll grab it if I get the chance.” It is more a matter of how I evaluate and choose the actions I will, and will not, take. Now, a “good” action is one that seems to proceed towards the object, while a “bad” action is one that moves away from it. These criteria will start to replace any other mechanism – anything more innocent or spontaneous, or based on some kind of moral compass. I’ll start getting lazy or reluctant about other actions that don’t seem to fit in anywhere on that scale – I should save my strength for what matters.
- Livelihood – You might wonder why this needs its own category, as distinct from action. Well, a number of reasons, but a good one to start with is that: we’re awfully good at compartmentalising this and saying “it’s my job dude, it’s not who I am”, and then giving ourselves an ethical free-pass for choices made within that context. Another is that: everything else we do is ethically/kammically framed by how we sustained ourselves while we were doing it.
Anyway – might initially appear fairly straightforward for greed – so get a well-paid job. At least if it’s money I desire, or stuff. Depends on what you’re after – I might prefer to emphasize the #metoo potential in my occupational choices, the roles I put myself into (also meaning on a daily basis, not just at job interviews, and not only what we do for a salary). Or perhaps it’s more the attention, narcissistic supply, admiration, praise, status. When I say “I” that’s of course entirely hypothetical – the real I was just in it for the music, maaan… [ahem] moving swiftly on:
- Effort – Doesn’t just mean making an effort – giving it large portions. Although obviously that’s good, and that’s part of it. It’s more structuring time and energy efficiently so that everything aligns with the goal, with nothing wasted, and keeping momentum. I can’t always be making big, strenuous actions, which reap immediate gains. So how am I using down-time, or low-energy time? Just vegging out with Netflix? If I really want it, I’ll always be, in some way, preparing for when I can next make a move. Let’s say I want a more attractive partner – then I’ll be thinking about my appearance a lot, tweaking my social media and the waist/cheekbone ratios in my bigeye pics. I won’t waste small opportunities to inch forward, in the absence of larger leaps. Not if I’m serious – little things add up.
- Mindfulness – A big topic, which I’ll talk more about later, but in everyday usage: The object of desire is never out of mind, or at least never far. If I enter a room that contains it, or something connecting to it, possibly leading to it – I’ll never fail to notice. It may well be the first thing I see. I won’t forget any tasks that I think might get me closer to grasping it, even if I forget everything else.
- Concentration – At a simple level, maybe not so much talking about the kind of meditative concentration training described in Jedi Hobbit: When it’s in my grasp, or perhaps especially when I think it’s almost in my grasp: distractions cease to distract – nothing else exists.
I am not about to go over this all again, substituting hatred and then delusion. Because I thought this could be something that you might enjoy playing around with yourself. Perhaps “enjoy” isn’t the right word – “yes let’s really have fun wading through waist-deep mental ordure…” Well, maybe you could make it fun then, in the edge-of-hysteria manner of a locked-down homeschooling mum – get some coloured pencils, glitter&glue. You could spell it out in pasta shapes for making your own version of greed (and eat it later). Even with a more mundane writing implement though, that might be a good thing to do, since your answers may well differ from the ones I gave.
Because I am going to suggest to you that the Four Noble Truths doctrine is not exactly Buddha’s invention. It is more his answer to a questionnaire, which is actually a pre-existing template in our minds for understanding stress, dissatisfaction, and misery, and concocting theories of what to do about it.
“Highly Efficient, Miss Snodgrass…” – no clues. you were warned
Not convinced? Try it another way – work up from the bottom. Think of a particular day in your life, a situation or incident, a relationship, or anything at all that can be identified as a distinct “thing”, and that you associate with a perception that you are unhappy about it. Instead of jumping straight in trying to explain what’s going on, and going wrong; start with writing your own ignoble eightfold path. Try to describe your activities in each of these categories, using real examples – hard evidence, as opposed to “how you see yourself” – because of course view is itself a part of this, and it may have been already poisoned upstream, which is where we are trying to get to.
Try to see what all these paths are leading to at the third ignoble truth – what solution you are actually working for, rather than whatever you tend to say that you are doing. That will then tell you about your theory of the second ignoble truth – what kind of defilement is sitting in the middle, making waves in both directions, downwards to create all these supposedly rational and free-willed behaviours. And upwards, giving you some clues about who is sitting up there at the top, in the first truth – this “I” that claims to be suffering.
Because what we end up with is a pretty good sketch, or snapshot, of what we tend to call a character, or even, rather more grandiosely, a self. Imagine that you are a screenwriter, dreaming up characters to put into dramatic situations and trying to figure out what they might believably do, how they would interact with each other, and respond to events in the storyline. You could do a lot worse than filling in this checklist for each of them, and then see how all their secondary characteristics, tastes and tendencies might seem to flow consistently from their wrong-headed theory of suffering.
For example, you could reverse-engineer from things like, let’s say: speech that avoids difficult subjects and contains a lot of hyperbole and “wow!”, a view containing mostly stuff like rainbows, effort that seems quite dissipated and random, and a livelihood that isn’t connected to any apparently necessary activity, avoiding responsibilities that might require engagement with things that can’t be easily walked away from (in case they’re unpleasant) – to suggest a 3rd truth that the remedy is to look away from unpleasant things, and pretend that everything is great by constantly generating an artificial sense of wonder. This might in turn suggest a 2nd truth that suffering is caused by accidental confrontations with reality, which contains the whole gamut from wonder – yes – to horror. And finally a 1st truth, that there isn’t really all that much suffering, is there? and if there is, it seems to be currently happening to other people who I prefer not to think about, so why go on about it? Why be negative? Surround yourself with positive people – So who’s that? And then what might Buddha call that?
I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that – at a kind of “large-scale” level of resolution – there is nothing really significant about a self, or an identity in more modern parlance, that isn’t essentially covered by this schema. And if you can roll with that, then I’ll go a bit further and suggest that giving enormous importance to them isn’t a great idea. That might seem a smidge controversial, since Western “Post-Enlightenment” thinking (that slippery e-word again..) tends to take it as a given that the quest for happiness, meaning – or any of the good stuff, basically – is inextricably rooted in The Self. Finding it, knowing it, liking it, loving it, nurturing, regarding, esteeming, respecting, expressing, fulfilling, identifying, and identifying with, it. And sometimes putting off a lot of other stuff until the “True Self” has been found. [hint: even if it existed, no reason to expect it to be hanging out waiting for you on a beach in Goa]
The Four Truths view rather suggests that our identities, our “selves” are generated on demand to make narrative sense (as a good writer will) of our poisoned or tipsy perceptions, and our misapprehensions, and to provide rationalisations for our actions. Which doesn’t mean that we should completely disdain or reject them, of course not – if you identify as the entire universe, you may find your self bumping into things rather a lot. Just that these selves don’t make for a very firm foundation upon which to then try to build a load of other stuff. Of course, once you have started – and you may have got quite far with installing mod-cons and cool furniture in your rickety shack, until you are insisting that it’s a veritable Trump Tower of a Self – it can be difficult, painful, or impossible to face any facts that suggest that it’s shifting, subsiding, springing leaks, and sometimes hard to find because it’s never quite at the same address.
Trying to hold things together, when they’re clearly flying apart, and big them up to others even while your inner confidence is crumbling – is a standard plot-device in comedy for two very good reasons: 1) the further you go with it, the worse it inevitably gets – the story pretty well writes itself. 2) It’s just funny – it’s inherently ridiculous. As we all instantly recognise whenever we see someone else doing it.
Whenever I play this “Four Noble truth game”, and someone begins to form out of the mists – invariably he soon begins to look like a very silly little man. And the silliest, most laughable thing, is that he thinks he’s free, and free to pursue his own happiness. Then I put on my screenwriter’s hat, and find that, referring to the checklist, I can predict his every move, thought, opinion. Everything that he thinks is so wonderfully unique and special and well-considered and researched, or just “that’s who I am, man – take me or leave me! [but obviously take me – I’m awesome]” can be traced somehow back to how, precisely, he has chosen to misinterpret and twist the Truths this time, under the influence of kilesa.
And I say “this time” because these selves are fluid, and ever-changing, however fervently they believe in themselves during their brief incarnations, and hold themselves with what they fondly imagine to be immense dignity.
The third instalment of this brutal summary of (a take on) Buddha’s basic philosophy will conclude next week
Dedicated to my big brother, Mr. Tom Radcliffe. Who, now that I think about it, is probably my original source for the “silly little man” school of Dhamma practice – trying to heckle yourself to enlightenment.