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Friday, February 20, 2009

Haze of Chemicals: Buddhism/Stoicism

Of course, as our moods change and we go through the ups and downs of anger and elation, certain choices seem more or less proper to us.

But normally, the rational person should imagine that we start with facts as best as we can determine them, then deduce and induce from those facts using logic. With that in mind, we approximate which actions will be most likely to achieve our goals, and then we proceed with those actions.

It is disturbing then, to realize that an action that seemed worthy to me one minute, may seem unwise a few minutes later after my mood has changed (or vice versa). This happens even though my understanding of the facts remains the same, I have found no errors in my logic, and all of my beliefs about the situation are unchanged. Angry-me sees situation x, and thinks action y is appropriate, but happy-me thinks action y inappropriate even though happy-me fully agrees that the situation is x.

What's interesting is that it is not that my understanding or opinion of the facts changes, but its simply that I weigh their significance in relation to one another differently. I also weigh the importance of different goals differently depending on mood.

So the question is: how do I go about seeing clearly through this hazy pool of chemicals in which my brain is swimming as it goes through its different moods? Why does the relative weight assigned to different facts and goals vary in accordance with these chemical fluctuations, and what is the "right weight" to give them? What means can I use to see through the fog and maintain the correct proportion of emphasis between different facts and goals despite those chemical upheavals?

My immediate response is that I have not fully internalized the essence of stoic teachings. The theory is that were I to do so, my responses would be automatically in tune with the "right weight" between different facts and goals.

However, what concerns me is, I believe I do fully accept and understand many things that are true throughout the experience. I really, deep down, believe that throwing a hammer across the room will not alleviate my throbbing thumb. I really believe it when I am calm, and I really believe it even as I throw the hammer. This is causing me to rethink (my application of) stoic teachings.

I am convinced that they are valuable and true, but I may be expecting their application in the wrong ways - at least at this time. For example, I think that long term despair and anger can certainly be drastically changed through stoic teachings - I have experienced this directly. But when it comes to immediate responses, the human being is dealing with a rush of chemical factors in the brain that are simply mechanically overwhelming to its normal function. It would be superhuman to resist the surge of stress and not react.

I think the stoic advocate would respond by saying that if I really thought an injured thumb or an injured ego were not an 'evil', that the body would not create those chemical rushes in the first place, and there would be nothing to have to resist.

I think that is a valid argument, and I have used it myself. Perhaps the process of internalizing stoic teaching fully involves moving that perception such that it applies in more and more immediate situations over time. So, the more deeply embedded the truths of stoic teaching, the more immediate a situation can be while maintaining the proper reaction. Thus, a new student of stoicism can understand and apply the teachings to alleviate long term troubles, while a more advanced practitioner of stoicism can remain in equilibrium through more immediate trying times, perhaps losing it under the most sudden and extreme moments. Then, the perfect hypothetical Sage would have the teachings so deeply ingrained in his perception and thoughts, that no moment, no matter how sudden or extreme, could generate pathos in him.

But it still brings me back to what to do in the meantime. This is where I think Buddhist mindfulness may help to provide a more practical, accessible, and immediate measure to fill in the gaps where our stoic practice is failing.

Unlike the stoic model, in which we work to adjust our perceptions of 'harm' such that the negative passion never even arises, Buddhist mindfulness takes place after and during the arising of the passion. Through mindfulness, we seek to stay aware of our passion as it arises, as though we were a third-person witness. Here we are able to both acknowledge and distance ourselves from the passion and thereby allow it to come and pass, without falling prey to it or mindlessly going along with it as a chemical-driven robot.

Of course, as with the internalization of stoic teaching, mindfulness is also a practice that requires effort to become more adept. I characterized mindfulness before as more accessible and practical; this, because my perception is that its somewhat easier to see results sooner with the more sudden and immediate challenges to our equilibrium. At the same time, mindfulness seems less capable of addressing long term despair that is based on larger scale perceptions of our condition. Here is where stoic teaching provides a more immediate benefit.

Buddhists would say that, through the teaching of detachment, we handle the longer-term matters. Yet, I have not found in Buddhism a specific means of achieving detachment that has been as powerful as stoic teachings.

These thoughts are perhaps starting to get into the real detail on how stoicism and Buddhism relate in their practice, and where and how they might compliment one another. It could be possible, that Buddhism and Stoicism start at opposite ends of the "short-term to long-term" spectrum of pathos, and through perfect practice in both, one comes to see their teachings as unified.

I will continue to study this and experiment.

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