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The Misleading Mind
How We Create Our Own Problems and How Buddhist Psychology Can Help Us Solve Them
By Karuna Cayton
New World Library Copyright © 2012 Karuna Cayton
All rights reserved.
So, What's the Problem?
* * *
When I was nineteen years old, I once worked for my brother-in-law, Scott, when he was the manager of the installation department at a vertical blind company. A hard-working Midwesterner, Scott had big goals; he wanted to be successful and move up the corporate ladder. As for myself and my best friend and coworker, Dave, we were in it for the short-term gain: some extra cash to pay for weekends spent partying and surfing. Dave had long, stringy blonde surfer hair. I had an afro. Together we wore the uniform of the sixties counterculture: baggy blue jeans, blue surf shoes, and a solid-color pocket T-shirt. Dave always looked like he had just climbed out of bed, having slept the night in his clothes.
One morning when we were receiving our daily orders from Scott, he asked us to mind the office for a few minutes while he ran out to do an errand. Every now and then, the phone rang with customers calling with questions or complaints. Then I went to gather the supplies we needed to fill the day's orders, leaving Dave to answer the telephone. Of course, asking Dave to man the phone was a bit like asking Lindsay Lohan to watch your kids. You can't expect things to go smoothly.
As Scott and I both returned to the office simultaneously from separate entrances, we saw Dave clasping the phone to his ear, one hand at his hip. He was shouting at the top of his lungs: "Lady! Lady! You think you've got problems? Lady, EVERYBODY'S GOT PROBLEMS!" Dave then slammed the phone down, looked at Scott, whose face was ashen, and said, "Can you believe these people!?"
Dave had just delivered one of my first and most profound lessons in life, and it was the same lesson the Buddha taught in his first sermon twenty-five hundred years ago, after he'd spent years in meditation and asceticism: the nature of life is suffering. Everybody's got problems.
The real question is: What do we do with them?
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
When the Buddha first experienced enlightenment, he was initially reluctant to share his experience. This was not because he was selfish, wanting to keep his profound insights to himself. No, he was reluctant to speak because what he had experienced was beyond the convention of words. He knew that even if he could explain it, no one could truly understand his message if they did not also experience it themselves.
However, many people were struck by his depth of serenity, control, and warmth. Finally, the Buddha decided that sharing his experience and wisdom was the right thing to do, but even then, he believed there was only a small chance that he could have a positive impact on a few people. Thus he gave his first teaching, typically referred to as the "Four Noble Truths." These are, slightly rephrased:
1. Life means suffering. Life is in the nature of suffering.
2. Suffering arises from clinging or attachment that comes about through wrong perception. Suffering is not random; it has a cause.
3. Suffering can be overcome. There is a blissful state of being that is free from suffering.
4. There is a way out, a path, and here it is.
The first truth he spoke about was the "Truth of Suffering." This states that every being experiences physical and emotional pain. At any moment, things can shift, and we have no real control to prevent pain and problems from arising. Nothing lasts, including our joys and pleasures, our friends and loved ones, our attainments and achievements, and so we are "set up" for disappointment. Everything is impermanent.
When I first heard the teachings on the Four Noble Truths, it concerned me that the Buddha called suffering a truth. He didn't say it was a concept, or a principle, or even a theory. Like the truths of America's Declaration of Independence, suffering was "self-evident." It disturbed me because, if it was a "truth," I couldn't simply reject it if I didn't like the idea. Humans don't float or fly in the air by "rejecting" the truth of gravity. We aren't free to accept gravity if we like it or ignore it if we don't. If suffering was a truth, then like my dealings with gravity, I was accountable for understanding it and obliged to contend with it.
The Second Noble Truth explains the main cause of suffering: our desires, or more specifically, our attachment to what we desire and our misunderstanding of how things really exist. Buddha noticed that people usually treat problems like random occurrences, and they typically misunderstand the nature or cause of the problems they experience. By understanding that all difficulties have a cause and assigning them the correct cause, we can begin to permanently become free of the suffering that results. In essence, we cause our own problems by seeking, desiring, or relying on transient, external things to make us happy. This extends not just to stuff — like cars, jobs, romantic relationships, family, income, and so on — but to our concepts. We become attached to our own sense of self, and to seeing the world in a certain way, and this leads to suffering.
The Third Noble Truth says that, once we subdue and uproot the causes of our problems, there is a state of being that is eternally peaceful, joyful, and free of struggle. The very absence of the causes and effects of suffering leaves us with a positive state of wellbeing. Then, in the Fourth Noble Truth, the Buddha outlines the way to achieve this. Just wanting to be happy is not the path to happiness. All living creatures wish to be happy, and all living creatures spend every moment of their lives seeking happiness. And yet, the achievement of a lasting state of well-being continues to elude all of us. Why? Because we do not actually understand the way out. But there are correct theories and methods that work. Permanently.
We could rephrase the first two noble truths, in part, as: nothing lasts, and pursuing pleasures does not stop the pain of this. Nothing illustrates this better than life aboard a cruise ship.
My mother is in her late eighties and has been on her own since my dad died several years ago. My father worked hard as a small businessman, and he made enough money so that when he retired my mother and he could indulge in the activity they loved most — travel. As they aged and became weary of airplanes and packing and unpacking, they spent more and more of their leisure time on cruise ships. Eventually, they spent almost five months a year cruising the seven seas.
After my father died it seemed therapeutic for my mom to continue cruising. My mother stayed in the best cabin — in a penthouse about the size of four normal cabins. It came with a butler, a large balcony, floor-to-ceiling windows, and an unending array of canapés and snacks like caviar, lobster, crab, pâté, collector's wines, and $300 bottles of champagne — whatever one wanted. Her itinerary included five months of cruising to captivating ports around the world, and my mom was riding in the very peak of worldly delight. If this didn't help her ease her pain, what could?
And yet, my mother was fairly miserable. She was frequently distressed because she was desperately trying to keep her life together: looking good to the other passengers, making sure she was sitting at the proper table in the dining room, and moving about the ship despite her poor health. She no longer got off the ship at the various ports because, she said, "I've been here before." She could not play bridge because her memory was so bad. But most of all, she missed my dad. Nothing on the cruise ship could stop that; in fact, I suspect the cruise ship only served as a constant reminder. She barely touched all the great food that was available to her. Instead, she snacked on cookies and had no appetite for dinner.
Perhaps this isn't surprising. Dealing with death is one of the biggest problems we'll ever face, and yet my mother was far from the only unhappy person on the cruise ship. My wife and I accompanied my mom for a portion of her cruise, to help care for her, and it seemed that no one we met was free of complaints. All one had to do was sit down and chat with someone for a few minutes, and inevitably the grumbling would start: about a particular waiter's ineptitude; the lack of lathering quality of the new bathing soap; the weather being too hot, too cold, or too cloudy; or the ports on this segment being too boring. It went on and on and on.
Of course, people's degree of complaints varied, and perhaps many were carrying sorrows and problems equal to my mother's. Yet very soon, my wife and I felt the same way: we couldn't wait to get off the ship and back home. But why? If a cruise ship doesn't define easy, problem-free living, what does? The reason I was anxious to get off that ship, and the reason everyone on it was wrestling with some level of dissatisfaction, was because we were faced with an uneasy truth: no amount of pleasure and ease could help us escape the problems that inherently exist within our own minds. Contentment and satisfaction can only come from inside: my mother and father were happy to cruise together because they were happy before they got on the ship. They didn't need the cruise to make them happy. After that experience accompanying my mother, I understood the expression "too much of a good thing." After a certain level of saturation, pleasures just begin to create a sense of greater longing and discontent. Being on the ship for over a month was like eating an entire cheesecake instead of a proper dinner — I felt bloated.
The Buddha understood the human impulse to avoid suffering by denying one's pain and distracting oneself with what feels good. But he also observed the truth that such efforts will never achieve lasting satisfaction and happiness. The typical way humans pursue contentment is flawed. We cannot, it seems, avoid our problems, even when we live in the lap of luxury, because our external circumstances do not truly affect the nature of our problems. That's because, according to the Buddha, our problems are caused by our misperception of the nature of reality and the nature of our mind.
THE INADEQUACY OF THINGS
I like to think of the Buddha's First Noble Truth as the Truth of Problems, or what we could call Dave's First Noble Truth. Life means dealing with problems; some are bigger and some are smaller, but you can't escape them. Look around and you can see that everything humans have ever manufactured was made either to avoid a potential problem or to take care of a problem we already have. Examine your living room or office. Every object can be seen as an ally against problems. We have things to avoid physical aches: a phone headset to wear on your ear, a foot rest to avoid leg cramps while sitting, an adjustable keyboard tray for typing at the correct height. Our computers solve a whole host of problems: with email, we no longer have to mail letters; spellcheck has replaced the need for a dictionary; I can write and edit and communicate faster. Lamps solve the problem of the dark. Pants protect my legs from cold and weather and the embarrassment of showing my legs in public.
But you know the freaky thing? Every one of these problem-solving aids will become its own problem. Why? Everything changes. Nothing lasts or stays the same. When the weather turns warm, my pants can be too hot, and then they get dirty and I have to wash them, and then they wear out and I have to replace them. My computer software must be continually updated; if my power cord short-circuits, all my work could be lost. Indeed, I could shock myself from handling the plug incorrectly. How many of us can't stand to be without our cell phones, but then curse when the phone rings at dinnertime, or when we're about to go to asleep and people just won't leave us alone?
If you watch TV, you know that every single commercial advertises a product that either helps avoid a problem or alleviates one that exists. Advertisers are smart. They understand the pervasiveness of problems. Lama Yeshe often used to say that "advertisers are the real social psychologists, since they really understand how consumers' minds work."
Yet not only don't external comforts provide lasting relief to our emotional pains, they don't even provide lasting relief for our everyday practical and physical problems.
THE THREE CONDITIONS
Problems themselves can be grouped into three categories. Buddhism typically calls them the Three Sufferings, but I prefer the Three Conditions:
1. We are continually experiencing physical discomfort or pain.
2. Life is always changing and unpredictable.
3. We are ignorant of the true nature of reality.
We will look at all three of these situations throughout the book, for in training our mind, we are seeking to solve each of them. Note that these Three Conditions are, slightly recast, the same as the Three Destructive Emotions discussed in chapter 4.
It's easy enough to see that we experience physical pain or discomfort throughout the day, whether it is hunger pangs, thirst, stubbing a toe, tightness in the back while sitting, colds and hay fever, dust in our eyes, smog in our throats, burning our tongue on our soup, or having a hang nail. In fact, our body is constantly in need of adjustment. If we stay in any one position too long, we have to shift because we start to cramp up and ache. We may think that there is no way to avoid this type of pain, but we will see that, for true masters, even physical pain can be controlled in the mind. The first condition is something that comes about, we could say, just by virtue of the fact that we have a body. In traditional Buddhist descriptions the body is referred to as a bundle of pain. Indeed, our body is a "bundle of nerves" that when barely touched can bring excruciating pain. Step on a tack, eat the wrong food, get a bug in your eye, sit on a hard floor — all result in pain.
We live as if everything were static, but life is fluid and unpredictable. (This concept will be explored more thoroughly in chapters 5 and 6.) There are many ramifications of this idea, but the main one is that because change is constant, we are never secure. We are always vulnerable. Nothing stays the same, and at any moment, really, anything can happen. Every day we are older, and at any moment death could come. We really have no control over what will happen to us in the next hour, minute, or second. When we hear of sudden tragedies, we are always thankful it wasn't us, until the day it is us. Our health can change in a split second.
Further, as I've said above, our external world is always throwing us curveballs and new problems to solve, and our moods and emotions are always shifting and outside our control. We may wish to control them, and we often spend a lot of effort trying to, but our success rate is extremely low. Thus, to solve this problem, we eventually have to accept the unfixed nature of the world and ourselves.
The third condition is, simply put, that we are ignorant of the nature of reality. This condition is pervasive. In essence, our biggest problem is that we don't understand the true nature of our problem. This can be one of the hardest Buddhist teachings to understand, and I will look at it more closely in chapters 3 and 7, where we look at the nature of mind and the nature of self. But in everyday terms, it's fairly easy to see. When we are suffering terrible emotional pain and seek to feel better by indulging in pleasures, we aren't solving the nature of our problem. When we try to control our fate, our circumstances in life, or even our mood, this displays our ignorance over the impermanent nature of life. We might recognize that we can't control the world, but if we really take a deep look into our inner workings, we'll see that we can't control our own happiness either. Despite our desires, we cannot just "turn on a switch" within ourselves and make that happen.
As much or more than anything else, the mind-training techniques in this book are meant to address this ignorance. With a deep, lived understanding of the true nature of our problems, all problems can be solved, for it is out of ignorance that all problems arise. It should also be said that this "ignorance" is not about intelligence. It's not about how smart one is, nor is it about willfully "not knowing" a painful truth. It is ignorance of the nature of existence. Unless we understand this, we cannot understand how to exercise free choice, we cannot transform our minds to their full potential, and we cannot truly help others or ourselves.
CASE EXAMPLE: HIGH-ANXIETY CARL
Carl was a self-admitted "control freak with a Type-A personality." A good day for Carl — which is not his real name, as I have used pseudonyms for all client stories — was a day when Trisha, his wife, kept the house in order, he got all the green lights in his drive to work, and his clinic ran without interruptions to his schedule. Carl was not untypical. He had a lot of anxiety, and his happiness always depended on how well he managed his anxiety. And so long as people did things his way, he left he could do a good job keeping his anxiety under control.
Excerpted from The Misleading Mind by Karuna Cayton. Copyright © 2012 Karuna Cayton. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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