We Are Architects Of Our Own Experience

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our Dharma sharing on the fourth training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening.

This past week I’ve been working my way through a recent book by the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett: How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Drawing on decades of her own research and that of a multitude of neuroscientists and psychologists, she challenges what she calls the classical view of emotions which most of us learned from parents, absorbed from media, and studied in university classes and training programs. In its place she puts forward the “theory of constructed emotions,” a comprehensive understanding of our emotional lives that emphasizes the human brain’s capacity to simulate events and give meaning to our experiences:

The classical view is intuitive—events in the world trigger emotional reactions inside of us. Its story features familiar characters like thoughts and feelings that live in distinct brain areas. The theory of constructed emotion, in contrast, tells a story that doesn’t match your daily life—your brain invisibly constructs everything you experience, including emotions. Its story features unfamiliar characters like simulation and concepts and degeneracy, and it takes place throughout the whole brain at once.

Barrett’s book carefully walks the reader through what’s wrong with the old view and the research that led her and others to develop the new view. It’s not a quick read. Barrett’s TED talk, however, offers a glimpse of how much of our understanding of emotions she would like us to question.

As I was reading Barrett’s book I noted the parallels between what she had written and the Buddhist psychology that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, an Asian understanding of our minds that goes back more than 1500 years. A perspective they share is that our minds are creative, not simply responsive: events in the world, and feelings, emotions, and thoughts within us, are not separate from our socialization, our prior experiences, and the workings of our minds. Once this is understood, we are better able to change how and what we experience. A phrase Barrett repeatedly uses in her book, “we are architects of our own experience,” is one I believe Thich Nhat Hanh would readily agree with.

One way of looking at the Fourth Mindfulness Training is to see it as a rebuilding project. We begin by noticing that what we are creating is not pleasing to us: our inability to speak mindfully and to listen deeply causes suffering for ourselves, others and the world. Wanting to relieve suffering, not increase it, we commit to constructing different ways of interacting. We refrain from angry outburst because they are rarely helpful. We give attention to the origin and nature of the suffering that is arising in ourselves and in others. Day by day we work on this project, nourishing our capacity to embrace others, even those with whom we are in conflict, with “understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness,” reducing our tendency to project “anger, violence, and fear” into our relationships.

How important is it for us to do this? Very important. Some years ago, Sr. Jina, the Abbess of Plum Village’s Lower Hamlet, during a discussion of daily practice, noted how important it was for her to be able to take care of and transform her own suffering, anger, fear, and defensiveness:

I really have to practice. Only if I can do it, can I expect others to do it. If I cannot do it my daily life, there’s no hope. . .  I would sink into despair for myself and for the world.

This Thursday evening, after the recitation of the mindfulness trainings, we will check in on how we are doing with our Fourth Mindfulness Training rebuilding projects.

  • Are we better able to speak mindfully and listen with compassion?
  • Are we better able to be in situations of conflict without demonizing?
  • Are our relationships more often infused with understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness?

You are invited to join us.

The text of the Fourth Mindfulness Training is below, along with an except on anger from Peace is Every Step.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

The Fourth mindfulness Training: Loving Speech and Deep Listening.

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations.

Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into its roots, especially in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to release the suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will make daily efforts, in my speaking and listening, to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

Mindfulness of Anger
by Thich Nhat Hanh from Peace is Every Step

When we are angry, we are not usually inclined to return to ourselves. We want to think about the person who is making us angry, to think about his hateful aspects—his rudeness, dishonesty, cruelty, maliciousness, and so on. The more we think about him, listen to him, or look at him, the more our anger flares. His dishonesty and hatefulness may be real, imaginary, or exaggerated, but, in fact, the root of the problem is the anger itself, and we have to come back and look first of all inside ourselves. It is best if we do not listen to or look at the person whom we consider to be the cause of our anger. Like a fireman, we have to pour water on the blaze first and not waste time looking for the one who set the house on fire. “Breathing in, I know that I am angry. Breathing out, I know that I must put all my energy into caring for my anger.” So we avoid thinking about the other person, and we refrain from doing or saying anything as long as our anger persists. If we put all our mind into observing our anger, we will avoid doing any damage that we may regret later.

When we are angry, our anger is our very self. To suppress or chase it away is to suppress or chase away our self. When we are joyful, we are the joy. When we are angry, we are the anger. When anger is born in us, we can be aware that anger is an energy in us, and we can accept that energy in order to transform it into another kind of energy. When we have a compost bin filled with organic material which is decomposing and smelly, we know that we can transform the waste into beautiful flowers. At first, we may see the compost and the flowers as opposite, but when we look deeply, we see that the flowers already exist in the compost, and the compost already exists in the flowers. It only takes a couple of weeks for a flower to decompose. When a good organic gardener looks into her compost, she can see that, and she does not feel sad or disgusted. Instead, she values the rotting material and does not discriminate against it. It takes only a few months for compost to give birth to flowers. We need the insight and non-dual vision of the organic gardener with regard to our anger. We need not be afraid of it or reject it. We know that anger can be a kind of compost, and that it is within its power to give birth to something beautiful. We need anger in the way the organic gardener needs compost. If we know how to accept our anger, we already have some peace and joy. Gradually we can transform anger completely into peace, love, and understanding.

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