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Noah Rasheta: Secular Buddhism #7

This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:

Carrots and Sticks

I wanted to talk a little bit today about several things. Firstly, I watch a show called "Brain Games" on National Geographic and the first episode of this season compares the way our brain works to a city, and specifically to London. It shows that, as a city grows, there's the downtown or the centre of a city and then it expands and you add highways or bridges and there are suburbs and neighbourhoods. The idea here is that, no matter how big the city gets, the downtown is still the same. That's the old part of the city. The buildings are generally older: the streets are laid out in a way that's not going to change.

And it talks about how our brain is very similar in the sense that, as our brains have evolved, there are aspects of how our brain works that are hard wired and that are very, very old. For example, the habitual way we seek rewards and avoid punishment; this concept of chasing carrots or avoiding sticks. It's hard-wired into us. It's a very old part of the brain which is like the reptilian part.

At one point in the evolution of our species, there was a time when our life depended on getting the right reward, finding the right food or accomplishing the hunt. The flip side of that is avoiding the stick. There was a time when, if you were driven from your group, from your "in" group, that meant life or death. This hard wiring is old, as old as human beings are, and you can see the remnants of that way of thinking in our day-to-day life.

It can be that, if someone cuts you off on the road, the habitual reactivity is to treat that like a life and death thing. You're suddenly full of rage and you're angry, almost like you would be if someone was trying to kill you. If a stranger came up on the sidewalk and insulted you, that's like life or death. The reactive part of our brain evolved to treat certain scenarios that way, and it can activate the fight or flight mode. It's just important to know that that's how the brain works. Our brain is wired in a way where there's a part of it that still functions that way and it treats everything as though it were a matter of life or death; it treats everything like we're chasing the carrot as if our life depends on it or we're avoiding the stick as if our life depends on it.

And I think it's interesting to be able to take some time and pause and think, "What are the carrots that I chase in life? Or what are the sticks that I try to avoid in life?" It can be comical to analyse these scenarios and think, "Wow, I make such a big deal about this, and really I shouldn't" and then to recognise: "But I can't help it, that's just what happens when I react."

When you go into that reactive mode, you're responding to a very old part of the brain that's taking control of your emotions and your actions. And that's why, first of all, it's important to know that that's how the brain works and, secondly, it's important to learn how to throttle that or to control it. That's where meditation comes in, and in past podcast episodes I've talked about the importance of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the exercise that gives us the ability to observe things as they arise and to simply observe them without having to react. The reactive mind would be like the monkey mind or the reptilian mind. That's the instinctual part of us that treats everything wrongly as if it were a matter of life and death.

But we can train our mind because it's grown, just like the city. There are new highways; there are new parts of the city where commerce works. There are parts of the brain that can throttle and control this and say, "Hey. Wait a second. You don't need to react to this." Meditation is a way of exercising those parts of the brain so that, when something does come up, rather than reacting we can pause and just observe and recognise what's happening.

Going back to the example of driving in your car, if somebody were to cut you off, the instinct is there. Immediately you're going to feel anger or aggression, but you can pause for a second and then smile and think, "Oh how funny. Who would ever have guessed that you could get so mad because somebody cut in front of you? So what? Now I'm ten seconds behind the schedule that I was on." What difference does that make? If we know that that's how the mind works we can look at that reactivity and say, "Oh, there went the reptilian mind kicking in. Okay, I'm good now, he's fine, his cutting in front of me is not ending my life so I'm not going to treat this like a life or death situation."

It sounds comical to even have to talk about it that way, but notice next time you're in that situation, or any other similar situation, how we really do treat things like life or death. If somebody were to insult you, that's a matter of life and death. Somebody cuts in front of you, that's a matter of life and death. I might be losing my job, and that's a matter of life and death, too. Everything is treated like it's just such a big deal. Well, that's because we're hard-wired to think that way.

Take some time and think about, "What are the carrots that I chase in life and what are the sticks that I'm avoiding in life?" When we recognise that our hard wiring is what makes us be that way, we can have more compassion towards ourselves and recognise that that's just how we are. I don't have to treat that like it's wrong and say, "This is something I need to change". It's just a matter of recognising that it's like the downtown in an old city; that's just how it is. That's how human beings are and that's how our brain works. But we can have compassion and then, in that moment, you can catch yourself.

This would be like the analogy of the two arrows. The first one happens, and you can't control that. You've been struck by an arrow and you can't do anything about it. The second one you can control. Going back to the example of the car, somebody all of a sudden cuts you off and, boom, there's the first arrow. I might have an emotional reaction but if I decide to make that personal and say, "How dare this guy cut me off? Doesn't he know who I am?" Well, that's self-inflicted. What happened is one thing, but the story I'm going to add to it will determine if I'm going to get that second, third, fourth or however many arrows of suffering.

There's what happened, and yeah it made me upset, but that's it: it can end right there. Or you can start to feed that and then you start getting hit with the second, third or fourth arrows that are completely self-inflicted. "Now I'm mad because I've been personally offended." Or: "Doesn't he know I needed to be at that meeting? Now I'm going to be late." And you start compiling all these new layers of suffering on top of the first one, and the first one was the one that you couldn't control, it was just what happened, but everything that you add to that you can control.

So in what other ways do we go through life reacting to the arrows that we're stuck with and causing more arrows of suffering to hit us? One of the big misconceptions, I think, is that the intention of Buddhism is to prevent or stop all suffering. And that's not the case at all: Buddhism is saying that suffering is universal, everyone is going to experience it and there is no way to end that. That's because it's part of life. When you recognise that, then you might think, "What's the the point if I'm just going to suffer?"

What Buddhism is trying to teach is this concept of the multiple arrows. You cannot help that first arrow; life is going to throw arrows at you. In one of my earlier podcasts, I talk about the concept of walking on a trail at night and somebody comes out dressed as a bear to scare you. If you know that's what's going to happen, then as soon as it happens you can recognise it. You'll still be startled, but you'll say, "Oh, OK, I knew this was going to happen at some point."

Now the aftermath of that initial scare is significantly reduced and you recover from it much more quickly. And applying this to the concept of the multiple arrows, it's similar. You know that the first arrow's going to get you, you're going to be hit by arrows at various stages in life, and you cannot do anything about it. But you know that, if you're going to suffer the follow-up arrow of suffering, then that's on you because of your lack of perspective and your lack of understanding of what's happening. When we personalise things, when we make meaning of things and add to the story, that's when we start to experience the second level of suffering: the second arrow.

And for some of us it's beyond the second arrow: it goes from third to fourth to fifth to sixth to seventh to eighth, and all these layers of arrows and suffering, and all of them are self-inflicted after the first one; the one we couldn't help. I would invite you to think about that for a little bit and imagine in what ways you add multiple layers of arrows after having been struck by the first one.

When we understand the way we're hard-wired, we start to get a glimpse into the nature of how we are. Remember that the Buddha's very first lesson, his key teaching, was understanding the nature of who you are. This would be an example of understanding the nature of how we are. We're hard-wired in a certain way. When we know that and when we can start to see that that's how we are then we can start to work with it.

There's a Japanese haiku that says,

"Showing front, showing back maple leaves fall."

And that's it; that's the lesson. The idea here is that we should be as maple leaves, that when we fall we should show front and back. But, for us, in reality, we try to put up a front, right? And we only want to show the front and we feel that there's no need to show what's going on in the back.

If we were to live like maple leaves, we would understand that there is no front and there is no back, there's just the totality of what we are and there's nothing to hide. And in his book Everyday Suchness: Buddhist Essays on Everyday Living Gyomay Kubose talks about this and he says, "If we were able to live as the maple leaves, showing the front as front and back, and showing the front as front and back as back, there would be no falseness, no pretence, no secrets to hide; we just show ourselves to the world, we live our life." We live a life of front and back.

I like Brene Brown's work on vulnerability, and this ties in perfectly with that concept of vulnerability. Vulnerability, she says, is about having the courage to show up and be seen. She goes on to say that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. It takes considerable courage to show up and be seen because our tendency, again, is, because we're chasing carrots and avoiding sticks, to live a life where we treat everything as if our life depends on it. Something as simple as, "I want to liked by this group. I want to make sure this group doesn't dislike me. I'm going to do this. I'm going to do that." We get caught up in a way of living that's not vulnerable and not authentic. It's putting up fronts and hiding backs.

The Buddhist life is a life of awareness. It's a life of learning to be aware of how things are and specifically how we are, and an important part of that is having the courage to just be exactly how we are: showing front and showing back. In his book, Gyomay Kubose talks about how what we're concerned with in terms of living like a maple leaf is to live with no shamefulness. We just live with straightforward honesty and sincerity in life. We don't have to be caught up in this way of thinking where it's like, "Is this side better to show the public? Should this side of me be hidden from the public?"

The Buddhist life is a life of honesty, it's a life of "there is no front and there is no back". A true life is a life of complete oneness and totality. We want to live life like a maple leaf, showing front; showing back. When we understand these facts of life, how we're hard-wired, what our reactive, instinctual way of living is, then we can start to live life in a new way. A whole new way of life begins the moment that you learn what you are and what life is. And what life is is always different to what we think life is, and what we are is always different to what we think we are; that's why I brought up the concept of the wiring of our mind. That's part of what we are; that's part of how we are.

Like I mentioned before, the very first teaching of the Buddha was to know yourself. He taught that the most important thing in solving your problems is to know yourself first, and that means knowing what you are. Hopefully this week you can have that in mind: that the hard wiring of the brain, the downtown part of your brain, is, from an evolutionary standpoint, what reptiles have. It's what the donkey has that's chasing the carrot; it's what the donkey has that's trying to avoid being hit by the stick. We're no different, and that part of our brain is no different.

Try to notice in what ways that hard wiring shows up in day-to-day life. When something pops up, how is this a stick or a carrot? And am I really, instinctually treating this as if my life depended on it? I think you'll be surprised to find how easily we do that with everything. Being in line, getting stopped at a red light, somebody cutting in front of you, the risk of losing a job or whatever it is – notice how you're hard-wired to think this is a big deal. See if you can pause for a minute, take a break and recognise this; if you can let the newer part of that city, the newer more evolved part of the brain, take over for a minute and just pause and not have to react.

There's that gap between what happens and reacting, and it's in that gap, before we react, that the more evolved part of the human brain can take over and say, "Oh I don't have to react this way. My life's not in danger. This isn't that big of a deal." Try that this week and see if that's something that you can work with. See if it's something that you can notice and I think you might find, on certain occasions, how comical it can be to have instantly been carried into this place where we were reacting in a way as if our life was in danger.

Then you can look objectively back at what it is that happened and realise, "Wow, that's incredible that something that minor and insignificant was causing me so much stress and so much anxiety because my poor, reptilian mind was thinking that my life was in danger". And then have that compassion for yourself, knowing this is how we are. This is part of being human, this is part of the evolutionary process of being human, and you can have compassion for the downtown part of your brain, the reptilian part of the mind and then try to extend that compassion outwards. Next time you accidentally cut someone off and then that person immediately pulls up next to you and flips you the bird you don't have to react; you can know where they're coming from and smile and say, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to activate the reptilian part of your mind that made you think your life was in danger, and I'm not going to escalate this because I know that I probably would have done the same thing."

It's a really powerful thing to be able to know even a tiny aspect like this of how we are and what makes us do the things that we do, and then you can have compassion for yourself and extend that compassion to others, because now you have a little bit more of an understanding of the hard wiring of the brain and you can show compassion for the reptilian part of our mind; the downtown part of the city.

The whole key is finding a gap that allows you to stop and pause and then to actively decide, rather than just reacting. It's when we react that we get ourselves in trouble, because that's the older part of the brain reacting. If you can catch yourself before the reaction, you're going to be able to react, most of the time, in a way that's significantly more helpful than allowing the other part of the mind to just react and be instinctual. And I promise you, for the vast majority of these things, if not all of them, your life really isn't in danger. It's not a matter of life and death, even though it feels that way.

Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to this episode here.

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