The Science of The Dharma

A rational explanation of the project of Buddhism, and why the newly emerging science of the mind is essential to that project.

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The Problem of Dukkha

This blog will be about dukkha, and the end of dukkha. Dukkha is a pali word which has been translated as ‘suffering’, ‘insufficiency’, ‘pain’, ‘unsatisfactoriness’, and ‘dissatisfaction’. It includes all those things and more. Dukkha is that to which all problems can be simplified, and our attempts to solve it are written in the stories of our lives.

One can get a good sense of the meaning of dukkha through the frame of evolutionary psychology. What kind of mind will natural selection pressures mould? One which experiences an increase in reproductive fitness, that is, getting more food, rest, sex, social esteem, and so on, as pleasurable, and one which is attracted to such sources of pleasure. So far so good.

A preoccupation with pleasure, at least given enough resources, should be a recipe for creatures which live a pretty fun life. But note that evolution will select for creatures that are motivated by pleasure, not ones that necessarily experience a lot of it.

A mind prone to contentment will be selected against for the straightforward reason that if a creature is content, it means that it isn’t incentivised to engage in the means of ensuring that its genes get passed on, and passed on as much as possible. If Jeff Bridges’ ‘The Dude’ was incarnate on the primordial plains of Africa, mooching around in leopard skin sandals, sipping the closest thing to a white russian available in paleolithic times, and generally enjoying life, he probably would not have survived very long. And not only will selection pressures punish contentment; they will optimise for its opposite: a psychological itch to seek sources of pleasure and escape sources of displeasure, a brief burst of reinforcement, followed by the rapid return of the itch.

The result is that, even as I sit on a comfy sofa, on a beautiful day, in my warm, clean flat, free from fears of disease or attack from rival tribes, listening to beautiful music with a cup of tea and a slice of toast, I have an uncomfortably strong urge to check my phone. Not long ago, all the wealth in the world would not have been enough to buy these luxuries, yet here I sit, feeling as though they are not quite enough.

Now I’m not moralising about ingratitude, or trying to claim that it’s impossible to be happier. People live much happier lives than they used to because of our extraordinary progress in inventing stuff like vaccines for not getting polio, industry for not dying of starvation, and electricity for sharing memes. We have learned to play the game well, but we are still playing by the rules set by evolution, and so what happiness is available to us is still available only through the drip-feed of appeasing cravings.

When I do start to scroll through memes, the itch goes away for a while, but it’s not long before another arises. There is no such thing as a scritch so scratchy that the itch goes away forever; why would there be? From the point of view of your genes, it is always better to be searching for more. The pali word “tanha” names this insatiable itch. Tanha is the persistent craving for experience to be other than how it is. Dukkha is the persistent lack of satisfaction that results from it.

Most people live as if there were no other way to play the game of life than to satiate as many instances of tanha as soon as possible for pleasure, comfort, entertainment, companionship, and success (and of course, avoid their opposites). Genuine, final satisfaction seems always to be just over the next horizon, and we live with this feeling for decades without seeing through the illusion. Considering how deeply programmed into our genome it is to act as if this were the only way to be happy, it isn’t surprising that this should be so. But aren’t we rational creatures, for heaven’s sake? What keeps us so hopelessly spellbound by this illusion?

The Grip of Craving

Philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote: “Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are”. In fact, attention, thought, and intention all have a reciprocal relationship, and are densely interconnected. For instance, thinking angry thoughts will lead to more aggressive intentions (and thereby actions), which will train one’s attention more to notice and emphasise potential slights, which will lead back to more angry thoughts, and so on. Gasset could have written “Tell me to what you pay attention, what you think, and what intentions you act upon, and I will tell you who you are”, but he would probably have been quoted less often.

Thought-intention-attention diagram

These things determine almost everything about you: from your character, life decisions, and the quality of your relationships, to your moment-to-moment behaviour, mood, and perceptions – even the amount of pain you experience. It determines who you are; what kind of mind you shape for yourself. Dr. Dan Siegel puts it this way: “Where attention goes, energy flows, and neural connection grows”. For most people most of the time, attention, thought, and intention are utterly in the grasp of tanha – of craving – and for this reason, the reach of craving in our lives is hard to overstate.

When people first learn to meditate – which consists of simply paying attention to the sensations of breathing for a period of time, they often think that they are spending the vast majority of the time focused on the breath, with only short periods of mind-wandering. In fact, the opposite is true: almost the entire time is spent lost in thought. Eventually one notices this: a realisation traditionally referred to as ‘seeing the waterfall’. Sam Harris describes the realisation: “it’s like having some maniac walk through the front door of your house, follow you from room to room, and refuse to stop talking”.

Most people spend a huge proportion of their lives using their minds to do things they don’t realise they are doing. It sounds bizarre, but it’s true. Given the immense power of attention, thought, and intention, this is like handing the control panel for your entire self over to your evolutionary autopilot; and the name of this autopilot is tanha.

When we check our phones, fantasise about a romance, or work towards a promotion, it may be pleasurable for a while, yet by acting out those impulses, we strengthen them, and so will become more prone to feel that same sense of insufficiency in the future. Thus, by allowing tanha to direct our mental habits we strengthen it, and in so doing strengthen the feeling of insufficiency that we had intended to overcome.

So what’s to be done about this predicament? Given that the propensity to craving is baked into our genes, should we throw in our lot with the hedonists and scratch our itches for all they’re worth? As is so often the case, understanding this problem clearly is half of the solution. There is a way to cheat the game that our genes want us to play – and this is possible precisely because the cycles of reinforcement that maintain the tight grasp of craving over us can be interrupted by a more skillful use of the mind.

A Trained Mind

The three aspects of the Buddhist path are typically translated ‘wisdom’, ‘ethics’, and ‘meditation’, but they may be substituted just as well with ‘the training of thought’, ‘the training of intention’, and ‘the training of attention’ respectively. It is these that maintain tanha’s control over us, and so it is the conscious training of them which can break it. This is the project of Buddhism.

Fuller explanations of these practices are beyond the scope of this introduction, but the principle is easy to understand: if craving is responsible for dissatisfaction, then let go of a little craving and one will experience a little more happiness. Let go of craving completely, and one will feel completely happy.

You’ve almost certainly experienced this for yourself in some way or another. Most people are familiar with the muscle soreness that sets in a day or two after a workout. Most people rather enjoy the soreness, as it seems to contain the glow of a job well done. But note that this glow is not actually part of the sensations themselves, any more than those same aches would contain the worry we might feel if we didn’t know what was causing them. The meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein tells the story of a friend who moved into a new house and greatly enjoyed the beautiful sound of a bird calling outside, until a few days later, when he realised that the sound was a faulty smoke detector in the basement. Immediately the same sound became a source of great irritation. Muscle pain may feel intrinsically unpleasant, and the sound of a faulty smoke detector may feel intrinsically irritating. Yet to a trained mind, it becomes clear that most of the negative mental states we experience are self-generated; a secondary gloss on top of the actual immediate experience itself.

This gloss is our old friend tanha again: physical pain and a high-pitched sound are not identical with mental suffering – the craving to get rid of them is. When one is better able to control attention, one may simply stop channeling energy to the judgements that negatively colour experience. In other words, though pain may be inevitable, suffering (i.e. dukkha) is optional. This is one of the reasons that placebo painkillers are so effective; it gives people permission to let go of some resistance. It is also why expert meditators have a higher pain threshold, and experience the same pain (generated ethically in psychology experiments with chemicals that stimulate pain receptors, or a piece of metal that gets hotter and hotter) as less unpleasant.

Obviously, just understanding the link between tanha and dukkha will not get you very far, since craving is not something that can be simply dropped, anymore than a tightrope is something that can be simply walked across as soon as one understands that the goal is to get to the other side. One needs to cultivate the right skills. How?

The Science of The Dharma

Let’s imagine a high jumper who hits upon a successful new technique. She may not understand the physics that explain why the new technique allows her to clear the bar, and in fact she may even have a theory about why the technique works that is completely wrong.

high jump techniques throughout the ages
The science of high jumps

But a good coach who knows a little physics can disprove the jumper’s pet theories, and figure out that the best jump is one which keeps the jumper’s centre of gravity as low as possible whilst clearing the bar, and so help to refine the space of techniques to try. This approach increases the effectiveness of training so much that the amount of practice time saved must be measured in generations. Science-based training methods are the reason that most university sports teams today can match the world records of a century ago.

In just the same way, many pet theories and traditional teachings (which are often little more than very old pet theories) of how to practice the Dharma can enormously benefit from the new science of the human mind. We can now avail ourselves of insights from modern psychology into how best to learn and practice new skills, change or establish habits, as well as findings from modern neuroscience into the structure of attention, the mechanics of craving, and so much more. To ignore them is to simply choose to waste time suffering. These tools have the power to drastically increase our effectiveness at training the mind, and are the topic to which this blog will be devoted.

Welcome to Rational Dharma.

Author: RationalShinkai

Ollie lives in England. He likes meditation, peanut butter, and Oxford commas.

5 thoughts on “The Science of The Dharma”

  1. Wow, maybe there is something nice about the AI out there watching what l am doing on the internets as your blog showed up in my Google news feed (the perfect place to be lost in thought). Great intro, and l have been happily reading your other entries. I’ve been meditating about a year now as well as immersing in brain science and philosophy books and am reaching similar conclusions as you.
    It seems that science has yielded the field of subjective experience to religion for far too long (that whole separate magisterium bullshit) Objectivity is of course extremely important to the scientific method, but the basis of science is logic and rationality… Both of which can be brought to bear on the subjective experience.
    Keep up the good work! I look forward to reading your posts and following up with your book recommendations.

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